Before the Throne: Lord Teach Us to Pray

Sermon by David Strain on August 15

Luke 11:1

On Wednesday evening last week we rolled out our new teaching theme. You can find in the pews these bookmarks; we’d love for you to take them. “Before the Throne: Becoming a Praying Church.” And there are some guides to prayer on the back. Please put this in your Bible and use them and join us as we pray and ask the Lord to make us indeed a praying church.

Confronted with the scale and the complexity of the challenges before us as a society, a radical shift in the moral imagination of our culture away from basic Christian values, the dominance of identity politics in education and civic life, the ongoing pandemic that continues to trouble us with all its economic and social and spiritual consequences and a whole host of other issues besides, confronted with the scale and complexity of the challenges before us, the place to start as we think about how to be faithful and fruitful in Christ’s service, is prayer. That’s the place to start. Prayer says, “We are not up to the task. We desperately need the grace and help of Almighty God.” The bottom line is, we must be a praying church if we are to be a faithful church and have any hope of being a fruitful church. We must be a praying church.

But before we go any further, let’s admit up front that prayer is an area in which we all could use some serious help; at least I could. I doubt there is anyone among us who would not blush would the character of our prayer lives be put on public display. Robert Murray McCheyne once famously declared, “What a man is alone on his knees before God, that he is and no more.” “What a man is alone on his knees before God, that he is and no more.” That’s a sobering way to think about it, isn’t it? The health of our prayer life reveals the true spiritual health of our whole lives. And measured by that index, I hope it wouldn’t offend you were I to guess that most of us aren’t doing too well. That’s why, beginning today, we’ll be focusing some sustained attention on the teaching of the Lord Jesus in the gospels on the subject of prayer, starting this morning with Luke chapter 11 verse 1.

So if you would please take a copy of the Scriptures in your hands and turn there with me please, Luke chapter 11 verse 1. You can find it on page 869 if you are using one of the church Bibles. Before we read it, I want you to see three things in this verse; three things to be thinking about as we read the text to frame our reflections on prayer, not just for this morning but really by way of introduction for the sermons in the weeks ahead. First of all, there is the example the disciples saw. The example the disciples saw. Secondly, the urgency the disciples felt. The urgency the disciples felt. And finally, the instruction the disciples needed. The instruction the disciples needed. Before we get to all of that, let’s pause and pray and then we’ll read the Word of God together. Let us pray.

Lord Jesus, Your disciples came to You asking for instruction and we do the same now. From Your holy Word, teach us, for Your own name’s sake. Amen.

Luke chapter 11 at verse 1. This is the Word of Almighty God:

“Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.’”

Amen, and we praise God for His holy, inerrant Word.

When I was in school, for reasons that pass all understanding, I volunteered to learn to play the cello. Don’t ask me what possessed me. I still don’t really know what I was thinking. Perhaps unsurprisingly then, after not too many lessons it became apparent that I was going to struggle. I could tell my cello teacher didn’t have particularly high hopes for me, but there I was, determined to learn to play the thing, so she set me some very basic drills, which try as I might I just could not master. Naturally, she would not let me progress until I had mastered them and so inevitably my progress stalled. Now my memory of how it happened exactly is sketchy, but one day, somehow, I managed to snap all the hairs on the bow at one end so that they all hung loose at the base. And so mustering my courage, I went to my cello teacher’s office and knocked on the door and holding out the pathetic bow with its limp strings I said simply, “Miss, I think I should stop learning to play the cello.” And I remember she was very tall and very thin and had sort of eccentric hair and she regarded me gravely over the rim of her glasses and took the bow and said equally solemnly, though I think with a glimmer of gratitude showing in her eyes, “Yes, David, I think you better had.” And that was the end of that. Now I’ve got to tell you, the relief I felt as I walked away from her office that day was almost euphoric! It was like being let out of prison. Clearly, I was not cut out to learn to play cello.

Here’s my point. There are things we discover, sometimes the hard way, that we have no natural capacity to learn. And when you make that discovery, be grateful for how much of it you have managed to learn and move on. No amount of patient instruction or daily practice is going to change it. But there are other things – and let’s be clear, prayer is among them – that can be taught and that we must learn. And that ought to give us a great deal of hope, actually, as we think about our own prayer lives. The scene before us here in Luke chapter 11 should be a source of great encouragement as Jesus begins to train the disciples so that they can grow. You can grow, believer in Jesus, in this area of prayer. It’s not hopeless. It’s not hopeless. The disciples, in Luke 11:1, certainly grasp their need of instruction and so they come to Jesus and they ask, “Lord, teach us to pray.”

The Example the Disciples Saw

You’ll notice that our text says, “Jesus was praying in a certain place.” The disciple who – it may have been Peter, we don’t know; it certainly would be in keeping with the way Peter behaves – but the disciple who volunteers or who was volunteered to step forward and ask for help waits until Jesus is done and then he asks for instruction. The clear implication is that it was observing Jesus’ own pattern and habits of prayer that have provided the initial motivation for their request. Having seen and heard Jesus pray, naturally they now want Him to teach them to pray. And so here, first of all, is the example the disciples saw. The example the disciples saw. What they didn’t realize is that they had already been with Jesus in the school of prayer ever since joining the band of disciples. He had been quietly modeling faithful prayerfulness all along. You can see that if you scan through the Gospel accounts which are littered with notations about Jesus’ withdrawal from the crowds, even from the disciples, in order to give Himself to prayer.

It’s interesting, it’s interesting that Luke in particular seems to have a special fascination with Jesus’ prayer life and he draws regular attention to it. And so for example, he records how Jesus prayed at His baptism – chapter 3 verse 21. In Luke 5:16 we read Jesus would often slip away to the wilderness by Himself to pray. Chapter 6 verse 12, He spent whole nights on a mountain alone praying. Chapter 9:18 says He was praying alone, but verse 28 then says He took Peter and John with Him up onto the mountain to pray. In 10:21 He prayed in thanksgiving when the 72 disciples whom He had sent out on mission returned home, expressing praise for God’s sovereignty in salvation. And just to round out the picture, after the point here in Luke 11, later in the Gospel, Luke also records Jesus’ prayer three times over in the Garden of Gethsemane and he records for us two of the three prayers of Jesus from the cross. “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing,” and, “Father, into Your hands I commit My Spirit.” You remember the third prayer of course, not recorded by Luke, that comes between these two Lukan prayers – “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” recorded by Matthew and Mark.

The point is, by Luke chapter 11 verse 1, the disciples have watched Jesus pray, they’ve overheard Him pray, He has led them in prayer, and His prayer habits have provoked them now to come to Him and ask Him to teach them to pray with some of the same dynamics they have observed in their Master. Which, just as an aside, is part of the modeling Jesus provides for us of how to make disciples. If we are faithful in our Master’s service and we are followers of Jesus, we are called not only to be disciples but to make disciples. Jesus makes disciples not only by direct instruction but by faithfully modeling and exemplifying the life we are to lead. And that is particularly the case in this area of prayer. If we are to make disciples, we must not only say the right thing, we must model it and invite others to observe it and ask us questions about it.

But what was it about Jesus’ prayers in particular that were so unusual that the disciples wanted Him to teach them? After all, as they point out in their own request – if you look at verse 1 again – there were other people who had taught them to pray already. John the Baptist had given his disciples a prayer to pray. We know from the ancient sources the rabbis taught their disciples to say set prayers every day like the ancient prayer that is known as the Shemoneh Esreh, the Eighteen Benedictions. So why not rest content with the patterns of prayer they had been instructed in from their youth in the synagogues or taught by the rabbis? Both Simon Peter and John, Jesus’ disciples, were originally disciples of John the Baptist. He had already taught them how to pray. Why not be satisfied with John’s instruction? What was it about Jesus’ praying that compelled them to ask for more, for fresh instruction and teaching?

For Jesus, Prayer Was a Necessity  

Well obviously we don’t know for sure, but if you survey the prayer habits of Jesus in the gospels there are a number of common threads that were very striking that almost certainly would have impressed the disciples as they watched and listened to Jesus at prayer. For the sake of time, let me just highlight two of them. First, for Jesus, prayer was a necessity. For Jesus, prayer was a necessity. Isn’t that a striking thought? For Jesus, prayer was necessary. For Jesus! The gospel tells us that after healing people, He prayed – Mark 1:35. Before walking on the water, He prayed – Matthew 14:23. Before He chose the 12 disciples, He prayed – Luke 6:12. Before Peter made his great confession, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” Jesus prayed – Luke 9:18. When He raised Lazarus in John 11:41-42, He prayed. And then when His enemies began to plot His death in John’s gospel, following on the raising of Lazarus and the whole momentum of the story begins to move rapidly toward the cross, right there at the pivot point in John’s gospel, chapter 12:28, He prays, “Now is My soul troubled and what shall I say, ‘Father, save Me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify Your name.” In the upper room, on the night in which our Lord was betrayed, He prayed in John 17.

Before and after every single major season of ministry, Jesus prayed in connection with every major event in His earthly ministry, Jesus prayed. He prayed at His baptism, at His transfiguration, in Gethsemane; on the cross Jesus prayed. The Lord Jesus, in His human nature, needed to pray. Before every trial, at every key moment in His earthly obedience as He fulfilled the will of the Father and performed the works the Father had given Him to do, He prayed. So even in the life of Christ, in whom deity and humanity are joined inseparably in one person forever, even here, prayer was necessary. Jesus had to pray. Prayer is the way, after all, human beings express their dependence upon God and seek God and obtain the blessing of God. And since Jesus was the perfect man, so He prayed depending on God, seeking God, and obtained the blessing of God.

And as the realization of His Messianic identity dawns slowly upon the disciples, and more as the fact of the incarnation itself presses upon their awareness, they begin to see He’s more than just a man. He is the Lord Himself come down. Can we doubt that they would, therefore, have found Jesus’ dependence upon prayer to be a profound challenge and rebuke to them? If Messiah Himself must pray, if the God-Man treats prayer as an indispensable necessity, how ought we to view prayer, who are mere creatures only and mere sinners to boot? If prayer was a daily necessity for the incarnate Son of God, how can we face even a single day thinking of prayer as an accessory to our lives, a take it or leave it extra, or even, dare I say it, an inconvenience? So for Jesus, prayer was a necessity.

For Jesus, Prayer Was Profoundly Intimate

And secondly, they would have been struck by the fact that for Jesus, prayer was profoundly intimate. Profoundly intimate. It was familiar. It’s a remarkable fact that in all the prayers of Jesus, except one, in all the prayers recorded of Jesus but one, He uses the same form of address to God. In fact in the gospels, some 60 times over, Jesus calls God, “Father.” Now this was startlingly new. Listen to Kent Hughes, one of the commentators, and how he puts it. “God is only referred to as ‘Father’ 14 times in the huge corpus of the Old Testament’s 39 books. And then rather impersonally, God was spoken of as ‘Israel’s Father,’ but Abraham did not speak of God as ‘my Father.’ You can search from Genesis to Malachi and you will not find such an occurrence.” Now there are a few places in ancient Jewish prayers addressing God as ‘Father.’ The Eighteen Benedictions that we mentioned earlier is one such example, although usually it is again a reference to God as the Father of Israel, not as “my Father.” In fact, calling God, “my Father,” is completely new. It’s novel; it is unique. You don’t find it. It would have been shocking to hear Jesus speak of God as “My Father.” And as you may know, the New Testament was written in Greek, but Jesus, in all probability, was an Aramaic speaker, which is why Mark 14:36 records both the Aramaic and the Greek form of address together. Jesus addresses God as “Abba Father.” “Abba” is the word of honor and endearment and respect that a child uses of his own earthly father. Philip Ryken suggests that “Abba” was almost certainly what Jesus called Joseph when He was working in his carpentry shop back in Nazareth.

No one would dare, no one ever had dared speak to God like this. But Jesus spoke this way in every prayer, except for one – that cry of dereliction on the cross, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” and we’ll come back to that in a moment. And so the disciples are seeing this; they’re hearing this. It would have been unsettling to them, shocking to them, intriguing to them. There is an impressive intimacy in the way Jesus comes to God that they have never heard before. And we want some of that. We want some of that! If there’s any way into that, that’s what we want. Jesus, come and teach us. Would You? Teach us to pray like that.

And let me say this before we move on. This is why Jesus actually came, you know – to give us this kind of intimacy and familiarity with God. He came so that we can come to God the same way He came to God. That’s actually why on the cross He was made to cry, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” The one time He does not address God as “My Father” – why not? Because there at the cross, for the only time in His earthly life, all awareness of the Father’s presence in blessing was taken from Him. And instead, the wrath of God, unmitigated, was poured out upon Him in our place so that, because the only begotten Son was abandoned to the wrath of God, we, trusting Him, might become His adopted children and never have to say anything other than “Abba Father” when we go to Him, and know for sure that we have His ear. He died that we may have intimacy with the Father. The example the disciples saw.

The Urgency the Disciples Felt

Secondly and more briefly, notice also the urgency the disciples felt. And here I want to highlight the grammar of verse 1. Look at their request again. “Lord, teach us to pray as John taught his disciples.” The tense of the verb is important here. It doesn’t really come out in English, but for the sake of our grammar nerds, it is an aorist imperative verb, which likely communicates urgency and immediacy. You could translate the passage, “Lord, teach us now, right now, teach us to pray. Now, Lord. We need it right now!” And that urgency, I want to suggest, comes from a couple of places.

Learning to Pray is Urgent Because of Who We Are

First of all, it’s urgent because of who the disciples are. It’s urgent that Jesus teach us because of who we are. We feel, I hope, our weaknesses keenly. So Lord, teach us to pray now. Our sin overwhelms us. So Lord, right now, teach us to pray. We are scared and weary and confused, so now Lord, starting now in the middle of these moments, in these trials, teach us to pray. These bewildered, tired, ashamed, guilty, frustrated, fear-filled, sinful disciples, they listen in on Jesus’ prayers and the experience ignites in them a burning conviction that a missing secret to hope and rest and confidence and spiritual growth and the defeat of remaining sin in their own hearts is learning to pray at the feet of the Lord Jesus Christ. It’s urgent because of who they are, because of who we are.

In all honesty, I want to feel that urgency anew. I want you to feel it. I want us to see with new clarity how fragile, how prone to wander, prone to leave the God we love, our fickle hearts are. I want us to come to the end of ourselves. We never will be people of prayer until we do, and come running to Jesus saying, “Lord, teach us now, right now, because it’s urgent. Because I desperately need it, teach me to pray.” Of course there may be some people here who are exempt, who don’t need to pray. If you are clean and pure and free of sin’s guilty stains, if you are strong and wise and competent to accomplish the mission of God without the help of His Spirit or the blessing of His smile; if you can keep His holy Law by the unaided power of your own arm and the force of your own will, if you are a master at parenting, without fault in your marriage, perfectly skilled at every task entrusted to you at school or at work, if you are ready for anything that tomorrow might throw at you, certain that sin and sorrow and suffering can’t touch you in what remains of 2021, if your understanding knows no bounds, your body never breaks down, your spirit never gets discouraged – if that’s you, then perhaps I’ll concede you don’t need to pray. You’re fine, and I would very much like to meet you. I’m sure I have a few questions for you. But for the rest of us, prayer is an urgent matter and we need the Lord Jesus to help us. Don’t we? We need Him to teach us. Will you join me in making the cry of Luke 11:1 your cry this year? “Lord, teach me to pray. It’s urgent because of what I see in my sinful heart.” Learning to pray is urgent because of who we are.

Learning to Pray is Urgent Because of What Prayer Is

It’s also urgent because of what prayer is. There is an amazing moment in Revelation chapter 8, verses 3 and 4. Up to this point in the book of Revelation, again and again, there have been these judgment scenes that unfold as each of seven seals are opened from a scroll that symbolizes the purposes of God for the world. And when you get to the climactic seventh seal, the seventh seal is opened, and surprisingly nothing happens – nobody moves; nobody says a word. In fact, Revelation says there was silence in heaven. Everything grinds to a sudden halt. Have the purposes of God stalled? It looks that way until, John says, an angel who had a golden censer came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer with the prayers of God’s people on the golden altar before the throne. The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of God’s people, went up before God from the angel’s hand and then, guess what? As the prayers of the saints ascend to God, then things begin to happen and the seventh seal begins to unfold. The silence is broken, the plan is executed, but only as the prayers of the church ascend. One scholar explains what it all means like this. “No one was more aware than John, the author of Revelation, of the limitations to what individual men and women can do to change the course of history and to bring the kingdom of heaven, particularly in the face of the cosmic forces against them and the transcendent character of the kingdom itself. But we can pray to Him who has almighty power. And it would seem that God has willed that the prayers of His people should be part of the process by which the kingdom comes.” Another scholar calls all of that “the dignity of causality.” The dignity of causality attends your prayers. “When we pray,” he says, “we participate in the transformation of the world.”

Who leaves prayer on the shelf when it is adorned with the dignity of causality in the purpose of God? When you pray, you participate in the transformation of the world. He has ordained whatsoever comes to pass, and yet, the Lord has also ordained that His eternal purpose should often only be fulfilled in response to your prayers. That’s why prayer is urgent. Do you see it? That’s why we need to come to Jesus and say, “Lord, I need You to help me. Teach me to pray.” Don’t you want the kingdom to advance? Don’t you want sinners to be saved? Don’t you want your covenant children to follow Jesus? Don’t you want churches to be planted? Don’t you want the kingdom of darkness to fall? Don’t you want to grow in grace? Don’t you want sin to be crucified in your heart? Don’t you want to be more like Jesus? Then we must give ourselves to prayer. Prayer is the means in response to which God pours out His blessing.

The Instruction the Disciples Needed

The example the disciples saw. The urgency they felt. Finally and very briefly indeed, the instruction the disciples needed. “Lord, teach us to pray.” They needed instruction. We need instruction. It might seem like an obvious point. It’s one, I think, we often overlook. Prayer is not automatic. We need to learn it. This is a call to humility, to meekness, to come and enter the school of prayer and sit at Jesus’ feet and say, “Will You show me how? Will You teach me and instruct me?” It’s not to say, “I know what I am doing. I don’t need any help. I’ve got this.” But instead, to come, raw and vulnerable, real and authentic, before Christ and say, “I need help. Urgently. Desperately. Now. Lead me in this ministry of prayer.”

Our project this year is to enter Jesus’ school of prayer, to submit meekly to His tutelage so that we can become a praying church, ablaze with spiritual fervor for the salvation of the lost, strategic in our endeavors to advance His kingdom, bold to make His name known, full of wonder, love and praise when we adore Him on the Lord’s Day. And we can only become those things when He teaches us to pray. So let’s make our start this morning, shall we, and go to Jesus in renewed humility with this great desire burning in our hearts, urgent on our tongues – “Lord Jesus, teach us to pray.” Let’s do that now. Let us pray.

O Lord Jesus, we have left the great gift of prayer often on the shelf. We’ve not used it as we should. And so we have not, because we ask not. And then when we do ask, we ask amiss that we might spend it on our pleasures. So with urgency, seeing again a glimpse of the depravity of our own hearts, and the wonder that You, the sovereign Lord who has ordained whatsoever should come to pass, should also ordain that my prayers, our prayers should be necessary instruments and means upon which You hang the accomplishment of Your eternal design. We come back to You, Lord Jesus, asking You not just today but for the days ahead, teach us to pray. Teach us, mold and make us men and women, boys and girls who love to run to Abba Father with confidence, knowing that we have His ear. For we ask this in Your name, amen.

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