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The Upside-Down Kingdom

Pray Then Like This

Rev. Philip Miller | March 27, 2022

Selected highlights from this sermon

It’s common to feel frustrated about prayer. When we feel like God isn’t answering or we don’t feel heard, many of us just give up. But Pastor Miller asks us this: “What if you’re using prayer the wrong way?”

In this message, we explore three ways of praying: two that never work, and one way that always will. We’ll learn three ways to orient our hearts to God in prayer so we can pray as God intended for us to pray.

One winter day when I was a kid, my siblings and I decided we wanted some hot chocolate. And typically what we would do is we would fill the mugs with cold water, put them in the microwave, and we’d heat them up and then we’d add this powder and all that kind of stuff. But we all wanted hot chocolate together, and there were six of us, and so we thought there’s got to be an easier, better way to make hot chocolate, but since we weren’t allowed to use the stove, we were in a conundrum.

And so, with a great deal of self-confidence in my own ingenuity, I concocted a plan to make hot cocoa in bulk, using my dad’s drip coffee maker. And so I filled the reservoir. It’s hot liquid; I don’t drink coffee; this will work, right? So I filled the reservoir with water. I emptied something like ten packets of hot cocoa powder into the filter basket, and I press “brew” and off I go to go do some things, and patting myself on my back for the brilliance of such a plan.

I return, what happens next is the stuff of Miller family legend, okay? So I returned to the kitchen with yelling and screaming as hot, pooling across the countertops, running down the face of the cabinets, sprayed up all over the wall and the window is piping hot cocoa as it exploded out of the coffee maker. And I learned that day that you have to use things the way they were designed to work.

There was nothing wrong with my dad’s coffee maker as long as you chose to make coffee in the coffee maker. But if you tried to make hot cocoa it just wouldn’t work for you. No matter how hard I tried, no matter how sincere I was, it would not make hot cocoa. It was designed for another purpose.

Sometimes people will come into my office for some pastoral counseling, they’ll have a situation they’re working through, and they want to talk about it, and they want to get my advice, or whatever. And sometimes I’ll ask them how they’re praying through their situation. And more than once people have said to me, “Oh, I tried that. It just, prayer doesn’t work. Prayer doesn’t work.” And they described to me how they prayed for whatever their situation was. They prayed for change, for healing, for a change in circumstances, for somebody to change their attitude or heart, or whatever. And then they realized after awhile that wasn’t happening, and so it felt like God was unresponsive. Their prayers were just bouncing off the ceiling, disappearing into the void. And maybe they kept at it for awhile, but when nothing really changed, they figured the problem was prayer. And so they just sort of gave up. Oh they might pray at meals, or in a small group, or their Sunday community, or when somebody calls them up front to pray, but not much beyond that. They just sort of gave up on prayer, and to which I would then respond to this person in my office, “What if you are actually using prayer the wrong way? What if there’s actually nothing wrong with prayer? Maybe you’re not using prayer the way it was intended to work, not the way it’s designed to work? What if you’re trying to make hot cocoa (chuckles) in a coffee maker?” See, friends, we have to use prayer the way it was designed to work. It will never work if we try to force it into our own use, or just use it the way we want to? We need to pray the way God designed prayer to work. Well, what is that?

Well, welcome to class. Jesus is our teacher, and He’s going to teach us today how to pray, how to pray God’s way.

So grab your Bibles. We’re going to be in Matthew 6:5–3 this morning. You’ll find our reading on page 811 in the pew Bible by your knees. Eight-eleven.

Matthew 6:5–13, and in this passage Jesus is going to walk us through two ways of praying that never work, and the one way of praying that always will. There’s a world of difference between these three modes of prayer:

  • Prayer that’s Looking to Others,
  • Prayer that’s Looking to Ourselves, or
  • Prayer that’s Looking to Our Father.

So we’re going to look at these, each in turn, as we walk through the passage today.

Would you bow your heads? Let’s pray as we jump in to God’s Word.

Heavenly Father, we ask today that through the values of Jesus, our Master and Lord, that we would learn to pray. Jesus prayed differently than anybody else in this day or age, and He comes to teach us to pray like He prays. So help us to learn what Jesus knows today, the secret to prayer that matters, that works. We pray this in Christ’s name, Amen. Amen.

First of all, prayer that is Looking to Others, looking to others. Look at Jesus’ words here in Matthew 6:5:

“And when you pray, you must not not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

So, the first way to pray that doesn’t work according to Jesus is religious hypocrisy, prayer that is full of religious hypocrisy. Now we talked about this at great length last week, and so I don’t want to repeat everything that we talked about last time. But what Jesus is doing here is that, once again, He’s calling out religious people who always seem to find a way to get their piety into the spotlight. They give with fanfare and flourish so that people will see. They fast in order to be noticed, and they pray so people will see them. Jesus calls this kind of religious performance, He labels it hypocrisy. He says they’re hypocrites.

And we said last week that Jesus is the first person in all of world history to use the word hypocrite with moral overtones. He coined the term. It was a term from the Greek theater that simply meant actor, or the people who wore the masks in the Greek theater. They were playing a part, and Jesus says religious people can wear a mask. They can play a part. They can pretend they are something they’re not. They are hypocrites. And He is saying that when we are actors, when we use prayer, not to seek the face of God, but in order to impress the faces of other people. In other words, when we use prayer, not as a means of relationship with God, but as a strategy to sort of show off, gain prestige, fit in, develop some social cachet, that’s when this goes wrong.

Now some of us who grew up in traditional cultures where religion was a dominant social feature, we understand what this is like, the pressure of religious performance. When public participation in religious activities earns you a place in the community, this can easily happen. Religious communities in particular tend to exert a kind of pressure on their people to sort of dress a certain way, speak a certain way, act a certain way, behave a certain way, even pray a certain way. And it can lead to what Jesus is talking about here, sort of religious play-acting, wearing the mask, performing for what’s expected, putting on a show. But then when we do that then our prayer is not about seeking the face of God. It’s about seeking the approval of other people, you see that.

It’s twisted prayer. We’re praying, not with our eyes for God, but our eyes on others. And Jesus shows us the way we can tell if this is happening. How do we know if we’ve fallen into this trap? He says, “Look, the problem is there’s no secret prayer in your life. That’s the problem.” It’s one thing to stand up in front and pray and use all kinds of fancy theological words when other people call upon you and when it’s socially expected, but if there’s no private prayer, if there’s no seeking of the Lord when no one else is looking, then that helps you see that you are doing it for others and not for Him. When it’s just you and God, prayer evaporates. He says Jesus is warning us: beware. Beware of the kind of prayer that is eager to pray in public, but is unmotivated in private. It might just be a religious mask and nothing more.

Prayer that uses God, friends, to look good will never work. That’s the bottom line. Prayer that uses God to look good will never work. God doesn’t respond to this hypocritical prayer. Jesus said, “They have received their reward in full.” That’s it, because using prayer this way, this hypocritical way, is not the way prayer was designed to work. Prayer, friends, is about seeking God. It’s about relationship with Him. It’s about cultivating a relationship with the Most High God and opening our hearts to Him so that we can connect with Him. That’s what prayer is for, but when we twist it and turn it into a thing that is simply religious performance to try to look good in front of the eyes of other people, it’s no longer about pursuing God. It’s about about pursuing popularity.

Imagine, if you will, you’re a young lady in high school, and the guy of your dreams invites you to a dance. And you think he’s really into you, so you say “yes.” And he says, “Ah, I’m so glad you said yes because I really didn’t want to go alone. I didn’t want anyone to think I was a loser, and all the other girls turned me down.” How would you feel? You’d be offended. Right? You’d be offended because he’s not into you. He’s just using you to look good in front of his friends.

You’re just arm candy, right? There’s a phrase you probably never thought you’d hear from the pulpit at Moody Church. You’re just arm candy, right?

And look, we can do the same thing with God. God says, “I’m not going to let you use Me so you can look good in front of your friends. If it’s Me you want, I’m all in, but I’m not going to let you just use Me.” You don’t want to be used like that. God doesn’t want to be used like that either. Prayer like that will never work. That’s the first way prayer doesn’t work. It’s when we have our eyes on others, when we’re looking to others.

The second way prayer doesn’t work is when we’re Looking to Ourselves, looking to ourselves. Look at verse 7: “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”

He says, “The second way I don’t want you to pray is like the Gentiles. That won’t work either.” The Gentiles, the word here is the ethne, the nations, the pagans, the non-Jewish people, people who are obviously far from God because they don’t follow the Jewish way of life in the first century. Their prayers, Jesus says, are full of repetition, and pleading, and flattery, and well-oiled phrases, rehearsed in order to try to get something through to God. They have many words, literally, “a torrent” of words. The torrent; the magic formulas, the secret incantations, the shamanistic rituals; torrential prayer, a deluge that even God can’t resist! That’s the idea.

If we could just find the right combination of magic words, if you could just crack the code, press the right buttons, you know. It’s like God is a giant vending machine in the sky. And you want the candy and so you are like, “What’s the combination of buttons, and money I have to put into the machine so I can get my little treat to come out the slot?” This kind of prayer aims to manipulate God, to win Him over so that you get His blessings, to do whatever it takes to get through—beg, plead, bargain, flatter, swear, whatever it takes! “I’ll say anything if I could just get God to give in to what I want.”

And Jesus says, “Beware!” Beware of this kind of prayer that tries to manipulate God in order to get His blessings. Because it is a prayer that aims not to get more of God, it aims to get more of God’s stuff. That’s what we’re after. And prayer, friends, that uses God to get His stuff will never work. Prayer that uses God to get His stuff will never work because we’re not using prayer the way it is designed to work. Prayer is about God. It’s about relationship with Him. It’s about bringing my heart and my life and exposing it to Him so that His grace and relationship might make me holy and transform and change me. But when I twist prayer into a mechanical magical incantation formula so that I can manipulate God, to get His blessings and His stuff, it’s not about getting more of God. It’s about just getting more of His stuff.

Imagine if you were a guy and you were madly in love with a young lady, and you decide to get engaged. You’re all excited about planning your wedding, and you have some significant family wealth. And during the planning process of the wedding your fiancé learns that your family’s wealth is structured in a trust in such a way that she’ll never actually have access to the money. And so she dumps you. How do you feel? You feel used and dirty, right? Because she wasn’t after you. She was after your stuff. She didn’t love you. She’s just a gold-digger, right? Another phrase you probably thought you would never hear from the pulpit of The Moody Church! And look, God says, “I’m not going to let you use Me, just to get My stuff. I can tell when what you really want is My blessings, not Me. You just want health, and wealth, and comfort, and ease, and happiness and healing, but you’re not that into Me, and if it’s Me you want, I’m all in. But I’m not going to let you just use Me.”

You don’t like to be used. God doesn’t either. Prayer doesn’t work like that. Prayer doesn’t work when we’re Looking to Others. It doesn’t work when we’re Looking to Ourselves. So how does it work? Well, it works like this, when we’re Looking to Our Father, looking to our Father.

Look at this beautiful prayer Jesus gives us:

Verse 9,

“Pray then like this:

‘Our Father in heaven,

hallowed be your name.

Your kingdom come,

your will be done,

on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread,

and forgive us our debts,

as we also have forgiven our debtors.

And lead us not into temptation,

but deliver us from evil.’”

Well, we’re going to have a chance to walk through the Lord’s prayer over the next coming talks. We’re going to do a little mini sub-series after Easter. We’ll take a little break, do Easter and then we’ll come back. We’re going to walk through the Sermon on the Mount phrase by phrase. But for now, what I want you to see is how Jesus is giving us a third way to pray. Jesus is giving us a third way to pray. He’s contrasting it with the hypocrites and the Gentiles. This prayer is the prayer of a child. It’s the prayer of a child. It is prayer that pursues our Father with childlike trust, intimacy, and surrender which will always be answered. It’s prayer that pursues our Father with childlike trust, intimacy, and surrender, which will always be answered.

Look at these phrases.

“Our Father in heaven…”

Did you know that Jesus is the first person in the Bible or in all of history to address God in prayer as “Father”? He’s the first one. This is a radical breakthrough of relational closeness in the Bible. And it’s not just Jesus, the Son of God, who prays this way. That shouldn’t surprise us, but Jesus is teaching us to pray this way, His disciples to pray, “Our Father.” How can He do that? Because “to all who received Him, (Jesus) to all who believe in His name, He gives the right to become children of God.” (John 1:12)

In the coming of Jesus, friends, it’s as if Jesus is saying, “My coming has ushered in a whole new dynamic of relational closeness between you and God, and it’s all happening because I came here,” which is exactly right. Just think of how different this prayer would read if it started with “Our Creator who is in heaven,” or “Master who is in heaven,” or “Lord who is in heaven.” All of those things would be true, right? They’d all be true, but Jesus is intentionally shocking His audience and saying: “Our Father.”

The picture is of a child running into the arms of her father. “Pray like that,” Jesus says. “Pray looking to our Father,” as a child, not looking to others in order to use God to look good so people will accept you, not looking to yourself, using God to get His stuff so you can be, you know, happy and use it in life, but looking to our Father, pursuing Him with childlike trust, intimacy, and surrender.

Friends, this is a big difference. The heart of the orphan uses, misuses, prayer in all kinds of ways to self-aggrandize and build an ego so that you can fit in in the world. The heart of an orphan uses prayer in order to self-serve and take care of his needs, fending for himself. But this is different. This is the heart of a child who knows that he has a loving Father, and he simply wants to be close, full of trust, surrender to the love of his father. It’s a different picture.

Look at how the prayer unfolds: “Hallowed be your name.” “Father, may Your name be exalted and honored everywhere as holy. And in my life, too, would You be seen as holy in me, holy in my life. May I be wholly devoted to You, full of trust and obedience and worship.” Do you see this? It’s a beautiful picture.

“Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” “May Your kingly reign preside over all things in creation, including this life, my own life, because You are my King, and I am here at Your service. And oh, that everything might be brought under Your rule and Your will would be done, that the whole Earth would be made right and new and whole on Earth as it is in heaven, that there would be justice and peace, and equity and wholeness and blessing from every place and every time. Have Your way in this world, and in me, too. Not my will, but Yours be done.”

This is not, there’s no image bolstering here. There’s no torrent of manipulative words; just simple childlike trust, intimacy and surrender. The prayer in this mode is less about conforming God to what I want, and it’s more about me conforming to what He wants.

“Give us this day our daily bread.” “Father, we are needy. We’re desperate, and You’re the one who provides. Please give us what we need when we need it. After all, our Father knows exactly what we need before we even ask.”

“Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”

Every relationship needs regular forgiveness, doesn’t it? And none more so than our relationship with our Father as we daily, hourly, minute-by-minute fall short of the glory of God. Because we cherish our relationship with Him, we keep short accounts with Him and with others, because you cannot love God and hate your brother. We know this.

“And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”

“This world is full of temptation, tests, traps, things that can take us down, and You know we’re weak. You know we are frail. And so we ask God to protect us from the things that could wreck our lives. But if they do come, we pray that He would preserve us safely to the other side, that evil would not take us down.”

See, it’s such a simple prayer, isn’t it? There’s no guile, no magic words or formulas here. In fact, one of the abuses of the Lord’s Prayer is that we turn it into ritual and formula. That’s the opposite of what Jesus is trying to do here. This is the prayer rising from the heart of a child who simply knows that his good father is watching over him. Our eyes are not on others, trying to look good in front of them. Our eyes are not on ourselves, just trying to get God’s stuff so we can get by. Our eyes are on our Father, and we’re using prayer to pursue Him with childlike trust, intimacy, and surrender. How is this possible?

It would be a huge error for us to think, “Oh well, we’ve just got to learn to pray rightly and then we can… then it’ll work.” The reason you can pray as a child is because Jesus made you a child of God. Amen? The only reason we can become before our Father with confidence, and intimacy and closeness like this is because Jesus alone has made us right with God. He has taken away our sin and shame on the cross. He has reconciled us to the Father, filled us with His Spirit that cries out Abba Father. This is the only reason we are children of God, and that is who we are, and so we come to a Father who loves us and who loves to answer the prayers of His children, when we come without pretense, without manipulation, without guile, but simply climb up in the lap of our Father with childlike faith and trust. “Unless you become like a little child,” Jesus would say, “you cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven.”

Matthew 7 (later in the Sermon on the Mount), verses 7 through 11 say this. It’s relevant to prayer so we’ll deal with it later, but I’m going to drag it back here. This is what Jesus says: “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him?”

Prayer, when it’s looking to others, aims to simply find honor and popularity before others, right? But friends, in Jesus Christ you have been honored to the skies. You have been made a son, a daughter of the Most High God. You are an adopted heir of heaven with rights and honor and privileges thereof. It is who you are as a son or daughter of God. So pray like it! Pray like a son or a daughter.

Prayer that looks to ourselves aims to convince God to bless us. But friends, if it’s true that you are a son or daughter of God in Jesus Christ, you are already blessed more than you could ever imagine. God gave His Son for you, and how will He not also along with Him graciously give us all things? What more can the Father give us? That’s Romans 8:32, by the way. “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?”

Friends, we have a Father, and He loves us and He loves to give good gifts to His kids.

Now notice, however, that Jesus does not say the Father will give us everything we ask for every time. It’s not a blanket, automatic. No father worth his salt gives his kids everything they want. My kids will ask me for all of their Easter candy on Easter. And no father worth his salt will just say, “Here you go. Here’s the whole truck of candy. Just eat it until you’re good.” No, no, no. Our Father loves to give good gifts to His kids. Your Father knows what’s good. He knows what you need. And so we trust Him. Everything we ask is with the caveat, “Not my will but yours be done,” and we trust in the goodness of our Father that He is watching over us. Prayer that pursues our Father with childlike trust, intimacy, and surrender will always be answered, but it doesn’t mean it gets answered exactly the way we want it.

  • Sometimes God says “Yes.” Yay!
  • Sometimes God says “No.” That’s harder, but I have to trust my good Father that He knows something I don’t.
  • Sometimes God says “Wait. Wait, I’ll give it to you later.’
  • Sometimes God says, “Yes, but I’m going to answer this in a way that is so much better than you could ever ask or imagine.”

Timothy Keller says this, “God always gives you what you would have asked for if you knew everything that He knows.” “God always gives you what you would have asked for if you knew everything that He knows.” He knows more than us.

This is the thing about prayer, friends. Prayer never works when it’s about our agenda, when it’s about our ego, when it’s about our control. It’s not designed for that. Prayer is designed to draw us close to our Father in childlike trust, intimacy, and surrender. And so God says, “Look, if it’s Me you want, I’m all in. If it’s Me you want, I’m all in. Just ask, seek, knock. I’m here.”

So what do we do with this?

Three takeaway ideas all from this passage:

First, pray when no one is looking. Pray when no one is looking. One of the ways that you can know that your heart is in the right place is if you can just go into your closet and pray. Go into your bedroom and pray. Just go somewhere where nobody notices and pray. It purifies your motives a little bit, doesn’t it? Just you and God; nobody else watching. Just pray to be with Him. That’s what a child does.

Secondly, pray to waste time with God. Pray to waste time with God.

What do you do with people you like? You just go hang out with them. What’s the plan? “We don’t have a plan. We’re just getting together.” We’ll make something up. That’s what you do when you love someone. You just want to be together. Friends, God wants to waste time with you because He loves you and He wants you to just waste time with Him too. No agenda. Not trying to get something from Him. Just be with Him.

The third way: Pray as adopted heirs of our Father.

If you have come to believe in Jesus Christ, if you’ve admitted you’re a sinner, if you believe that Jesus has done everything to make you right with God, if you’ve committed your life to Him, say, “Be my Lord, be my Savior, be my everything,” it means you are now in the family of God. You’re a child of God. By grace through faith in Jesus alone, and that means you’re an adopted heir of heaven. You’re an heir of God, you’re a son or a daughter of the King. You are called by His name, and so pray like it.

Hebrews 4:16: “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in our time of need.”

God wants you to come. God loves to give good gifts to the children He loves, so let’s pursue Him with childlike trust, intimacy, and surrender. Let’s ask, seek and knock. Amen?

Let’s pray.

Father, help us to pray in a way that honors You. Forgive us for making prayer about us, about what other people think, about trying to bend You to what we need or think we need. Help us to realize that the most important things have already been given to us in Jesus Christ (We are Yours forever, we are Your sons, Your daughters), that You delight in us, that You love us, that Your will is for us (You’re on our team, and so all we have to do is ask), that who You are is more important than what You give us. Help us to seek Your face. Help us to want to be near. Help us to open our hearts to You and hold nothing back, and to come with simple childlike faith, surrendering everything to Your perfect judgment and will.

We know You are good. Help us to believe it when You say no, or when You say wait, or when You call us to do hard things like pick up our cross and follow Jesus. Help us to believe in Your goodness even when things are tough because You will never leave us. You will never forsake us, and You are in every moment of every day, working Your perfect will to conform us to the image of Christ so that we might be like Him.

Help us to pray like Jesus, not my will but Yours be done, to invite ourselves into alignment with Your plan and Your purposes. Help us to trust You, our Father.

In Jesus’ name, Amen. Amen.

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