November 15, 2020
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
THE PRAYER GOD ANSWERS
This church building has been here 25 years. Which I guess means we can no longer call this the “new church.” Some of you were here when it was built. Most of you were not. I was not.
I remember when I first saw the building. I first saw it on my computer screen. It had been suggested that Helen and I might move to Nampa to serve as your pastor. Before we drove out here, we found a picture of your building on the internet. We were very impressed. We were also impressed when we learned that you had paid off your mortgage.
Even though I wasn’t here, I can imagine what it was like for those of you were. When the idea was first suggested, it probably seemed impossible. Maybe even crazy. But some of you couldn’t let it go. The more you prayed, the more it seemed that it wasn’t just your idea. It was a God thing.
And then came the time when your prayers crossed a threshold. They were no longer just “wouldn’t it be nice” prayers. You were getting serious. Maybe this could really be. Maybe you could really be part of making this happen.
I’m sure there were lots of meetings. Lots of work. Lots of disagreements. Lots of moments when it would have been easy to give up and let go of the dream. But you couldn’t do that.
Plans were drawn. Ground was broken. A building took shape. January 1995 was your first worship service.
But then came the monthly reminders that you weren’t done with the project quite yet. You had borrowed money. It had to be paid back. Until it was, it was like a ball and chain tied to your ankle. Again you prayed. And again your prayers crossed a threshold – from “wouldn’t be nice” to “what can I do?” There was a lot of money to raise. It seemed impossible. But you believed. And you prayed. And God answered your prayer. In 2005, the mortgage was paid in full. Those of us who have shown up since have inherited a wonderful gift. A debt-free building. We are very grateful.
I mention this for a couple of reasons. For one, in this year of the pandemic we have been unable to properly celebrate the 25th anniversary of this building. So I thought it should at least be mentioned. Also, your story illustrates something important about prayer. It is one thing to pray for something with our lips. It is another thing to pray for something with our hearts. Jesus said that the Pharisees, “honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (Matthew 15:8). It’s when we pray with our hearts, not just with our lips, that amazing things start to happen.
These Pharisees would make a big production of their prayers. Jesus said in our scripture that they loved to be seen and heard, whether it be in the synagogue or on the street corner. They would pray out loud. The louder the better. They would make a scene. You couldn’t miss them. They were “practicing their piety before men, in order to be seen [and heard] by them” (Matthew 6:1).
We read about this and we smile. We would never do that. We keep a safe distance from the religious weirdoes that we occasionally encounter as we walk down the street. We don’t have to worry about “practicing our piety before men.” We are terrified of even praying out loud in a restaurant. But we miss the point Jesus is making.
It’s not that the Pharisees were making a scene. It’s not that they were putting on a show. We can laugh at them for that because we would never do that. But we stop laughing when we see the point Jesus is making about the prayers of the Pharisees. The problem wasn’t that they were loud and showy. The problem was that they were insincere. They didn’t really mean what they were praying. They were saying the right words with their lips, but there was a disconnect between what was coming from their lips and what was in their hearts. And that’s not so funny. Because we are guilty of the very same thing.
The prayer God answers is a sincere prayer. Back when we were singing hymns, sometimes we would sing a hymn that begins, “Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire, unuttered or expressed, the motion of a hidden fire that trembles in the breast.” It’s the sincerity, it’s the desire, it’s the fire that makes the prayer.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning said, “Every wish, with God, is a prayer.” It’s not what we say, it’s what we mean. It’s what we want. It’s what’s in our hearts.
Jesus said, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Matthew 6:7). He also said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matthew 5:6). It’s when we ask, when we seek, when we knock, it’s when we want what we are praying for as much as we want our next meal, that God will answer our prayer.
Harry Emerson Fosdick has a chapter in one of his books, “Prayer as Dominant Desire” (The Meaning of Prayer, pages 127-145). It’s this same idea. It’s not what we say. It’s what we mean. It’s what we sincerely want. It’s our dominant desire. That’s what matters in prayer. That’s the prayer God answers.
There’s that Bible verse, “Pray without ceasing” (I Thessalonians 5:16). Maybe that verse has made you feel guilty because you know you pray so seldom. But maybe you pray more than you realize. Like all the time. Like “without ceasing.” Because, “Every wish, with God, is a prayer.” Every time you really want something, you are praying, whether you realize it or not.
And when you do pray in the more formal sense, it’s the sincerity that matters. It’s not what’s on your lips. It’s what’s in your heart.
What’s in your heart, not what’s on your lips, measures you. That’s what God sees. That’s what God hears. Those Pharisees who were making such a production of their prayers were saying all the right things. They were really good at praying. It was their specialty. They thought they were really good at convincing God that they were who they made themselves out to be in their prayers. But God isn’t fooled.
One of the great passages of scripture is Psalm 139. It begins, “O Lord, you have searched me and known me.” It ends, “Search me, O God, and know my heart, try me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me.” It’s a beautiful prayer, from beginning to end, almost.
I said “almost” because just before the end, we get a glimpse into the heart of the one who is praying so beautiful a prayer. And what we see is not so beautiful.
Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord, and abhor those who rise up against you? I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies (139:21-22).
The verse after that is the one that says, “Search me, O God, and know my heart, try me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me.” Isn’t that interesting? The Psalmist who is able to pray so beautiful a prayer is unable to see that hating “with perfect hatred” just might be a sign that he isn’t such a perfect person after all! But God can see. God sees all and knows all. God knows us better than we know ourselves.
It’s what we want that measures us. A rock wants nothing. It just is. But then comes plant life. Even trees want something. Water and sun and carbon dioxide. The more advanced life becomes the more advanced the wants. Human beings have basic survival wants, but once these are met we want more than that, and also more than just what we want. We want the good of others. As we continue to grow, we approach the highest level of spirituality where our greatest desire is God. “To glorify God and enjoy him forever.” So what is the truest way to measure our lives? By what we want more than anything else.
Also, what we want more than anything else tends to be what we get. The Rolling Stones tell us, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” But it’s amazing how often we do. Prayers get answered, especially when they are consistent with what we really have our heart set on. John Burroughs said, “If you have a thing in your mind, it is not long before you have it in your hand.”
This building is an answer to prayer. Many prayers. Heart prayers, not just lip prayers.
Where you find yourself in life right now is an answer to prayer. Whatever you wanted more than anything else is very likely what you got. If you really wanted to make a lot of money, you probably did. Or you are on your way. If you really wanted to achieve some level of excellence, whether it be professionally, artistically, athletically, academically, musically, or whatever else, you probably either got there, or got close, or you are on your way. If what you really wanted more than anything else was to be a good person, I would be very surprised if you are not a good person. If your greatest goal was not to be good but to indulge in whatever makes you feel good, I’m pretty sure you have figured that one out by now. If your heart prayer was to be part of a strong, caring, close family, chances are you have received that blessing. If following Jesus is the most important thing to you, then “Christian” is not just a label you wear. It’s who you are deep down.
It’s true that circumstances beyond our control can intervene. “You can’t always get what you want.” It’s also true that we can say we want certain things, but we don’t want them enough to pay the price for them. Malcolm Gladwell says it takes 10,000 hours to achieve excellence in anything. That’s quite a price. Maybe that’s more than you want to pay. So your prayer is more a “wouldn’t it be nice” kind of thing. And sometimes the reason we don’t get what we want it just part of the mystery of unanswered prayer. There is no explanation.
But these prayers of dominant desire – not what we say we want, but what we sincerely do want – have an amazing way of being answered. For good or for bad.
Sometimes answered prayer is a problem, not a blessing. The Prodigal Son wanted to leave home, get away from his dad, and enjoy life. Turned out that wasn’t such a great idea. Adam and Eve wanted the apple, Lot wanted Sodom, David wanted Bathsheba, Ahab wanted Naboth’s vineyard, Judas wanted 30 pieces of silver. They got what they wanted. Sometimes we do too. If we really want something, chances are we will find a way to get it. So it’s important to want the right things.
Today’s scripture begins with prayers that are loud, showy and insincere. It ends with the greatest prayer ever prayed. Jesus first tells us how not to pray. He says, “Do not be like them.” He then tells us how to pray. He says, “Pray then like this.”
It’s been said that it is easy to commit the Lord’s Prayer to memory, but it is difficult to learn it by heart. Think about that one. It’s easy to learn the words. I’ll bet you can say the words without thinking. It’s hard to let those words sink in. You don’t just know them. You don’t just say them. You live them. They are not just in your head. They are in your heart. It’s easy to commit the Lord’s Prayer to memory, but it’s difficult to learn it by heart.
We love to pick on the Pharisees. They are easy targets. We love it when Jesus nails them. Like when he says, “[they] honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” But it’s kind of like pointing your finger at someone else. Whenever I do that, I have three pointing back at me.
We may not be on the street corner, making a scene, praying out loud. That may not be our form of insincerity when we pray. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have our own form of insincerity when we pray. We give lip service to God. We say the words we think he wants to hear. But our hearts are far from him.
I have a whole shelf of C.S. Lewis books. One of my favorites is The Great Divorce. This is not a book about divorce. It’s a book about heaven and hell. It’s a book about how different heaven and hell are from each other. It’s a story about a group of people who live in hell and get to take a trip to heaven. They travel in a bus. Yes, it is a most unusual story.
When they have the opportunity to stay in heaven, almost all of them choose to return to hell. All but one. The point of the story is that we get what we want, even in the afterlife. If the deepest desire of our heart is heaven, we get heaven. But there are some who might say they want heaven, but they would never be happy there. They get the place where they are most at home. Not a place of flames and devils, but a place where people are perfectly free to continue in their selfishness which was their greatest desire on earth.
Here’s how C.S. Lewis put it. There are two kinds of people. There are those who say to God, “Thy will be done.” And there are those to whom God says, “Thy will be done.” And so there are two places. One for those whose deepest desire is God’s will. And one for those whose deepest desire is their own will.
It’s not that all the good people are in one place and all the bad people are in the other place. It’s not that simple. In fact, there is a murderer in heaven. It’s one of the strangest scenes in this very strange book. The murderer who lives in heaven once worked for a very respectable man who now lives in hell but is one of the passengers on that bus who gets to visit heaven.
“Look at me now,” said the ghost from hell. “I gone straight all my life. I don’t say I was a religious man and I don’t say I have no faults, far from it. But I done my best all my life, see? I done my best by everyone, that’s the sort of chap I was. I never asked for anything that wasn’t mine by rights. If I wanted a drink I paid for it and if I took my wages I done my job, see? I’m not asking for nothing but my rights. I’m not asking for anybody’s bleeding charity.” That’s when the forgiven murderer spoke up. He said, “Then do. At once. Ask for the Bleeding Charity.”
There are two kinds of people. There are those who say to God, “Thy will be done.” And there are those to whom God says, “Thy will be done.” Either way, you get what you want. Either way God answers your prayer.
God, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. We pray that prayer with our lips. Help us to pray it with our hearts. You know us God, better than we know ourselves. You know every one of our many and complicated desires. You know that we want things that are good for us and good for others, and you also know those desires that we’d rather keep secret. There are no secrets from you. I pray today that we might heed this warning – what we want is usually what we get. So God, may we want the right things. May we want you – your kingdom, your power, and your glory forever. Amen