Sunday, January 10, 2016

Genesis 4:26 - Why do People Pray ? Why is Prayer so difficult?

January is a dedicated prayer month at Eastside Baptist Church.  We consider  prayer as an indispensable discipline to the life of our church, a sign that we  confess our actual dependence upon God for all that we  do as we  pray, “your kingdom  come, your will be done  on earth as it is  in heaven.” (Matt. 6:9,10). 

We begin our year by acknowledging   that the church is  dependent on God for her life and vitality.  It is true that  God uses people  to do His work, but it  is  even more true that  our people need to be empowered by God to do  real, fruitful  kingdom work in His way and not by human  intuition. In this regard  the Lord  Jesus has reminded us,  ”I am the Vine, you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in  him, he it is that bears much fruit , for apart from me  you can do nothing.” (Jn. 15:5).

Our  congregation that has  often been reminded  and  instructed  over the years   concerning the  importance  and the priority  of  the work of prayer, particularly on a congregational level. There is little else that is left for me to say to you, except by way of constant  reminders and exhortations  to ‘always pray and not to lose heart’ (Lk. 18:1).  Praying is   never easy, but it is always necessary  that we should pray.   If you struggle to pray then learn to pray. Say, like the disciples did to Jesus: Lord teach us to pray!”  That is a prayer in itself.  In the end the way  to learn to pray  is by praying!  I can  speak to you about it and you can read many books about prayer, but in the end we must pray. There are some that are  better trained in the work of prayer. Let us learn from them by all means, but  ultimately there are no experts in prayer; we  all need to constantly  learn and grow  in this discipline.   Prayer is  difficult  for the  reasons  I will  give to you .

Our Text: Gen 4:26

Last year we  began a series  of sermons in Genesis  and in that context we   had read a verse  which I would like us to re- consider  as a starter  for our “fresh thoughts on prayer” series in January.

"To Seth also a son was born, and he called his name Enosh.  At that time people began to call upon the name of the LORD.” (Gen. 4:26). I have chosen this text   to answer  some  fundamental questions  such as,    “Why do we pray?”  and  “Why is it so difficult to pray”?

But first some background to our text:  
This text follows  an intense series of events.  In  Genesis 3 we  have learned of the fall of man by which  mankind  had  become spiritually alienated  from God.  Before the fall, in the garden of Eden, man  had a wonderfully intimate, direct  relationship  with his Maker.  God and man  walked together  in paradise.  The fall  brought an end to all that. Sin caused  man  to be evicted  from Eden, that place of  direct fellowship. Man   was now in a spiritual desert. He  was now surviving  by his own instincts, devices and wisdom. He now lacked that direct  input and instruction from God and now being  influenced by the inclinations  of his sinful  nature and  also under the tutelage of  Satanic impulses,      man  now became capable of the worst  behaviour.

And so we must not be surprised  to  read in Genesis 4:8  of   Cain’s murder of his brother Abel.  This  fact leads Cain  and his  offspring   even further away from  God. He settles in the land of  “Nod” (wandering) , away from the presence of the Lord.  Mercifully, God did not forsake the people  that He had made, and  He continued to care and provide  for them, although no longer in the context  of the intimacy of Eden.  God  nevertheless brings  near to Himself a  people  through another son of Adam and Eve, Seth by name,    and his offspring.  It is   in this context that we read, “at that time people began to call upon the name of the LORD.”   The position here  then  is  that we have  a people removed from God, through sin  but it is clear that they still  have  a conscience and a  longing to be in touch with  the Creator.

So, our first question, “why do we pray? “ is answered. Men  everywhere instinctively know that they have been created by God and that  is  the reason  why   they call upon God in prayer. We observe  in this regard   that  prayer is a universal phenomenon. All  modern religions have a practise of   prayer.  This is also described in the New Testament.   Read Acts 17:22-28  where   Paul points out the inherent religiosity of the Greek people  of his day  in v. 22.  They  have an inclination to “seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find to him” (v. 27).    Paul is saying  that these  people  intuitively know that they  have been   created  by God, and by this virtue they wish to speak to  their Creator.  This does not mean  that  their prayers are  received by God . We are simply making the observation that people pray everywhere.

This brings us to our  second question:  Why is prayer so difficult? Why  do we so often feel that we are groping in the dark as far as prayer is concerned?  To the Athenians in Acts 17 Paul answers  that  God seems far away to them, but he  reminds them  that  “he is actually not far from each one of us”(v.27b).

The actual reason  why God  seems far away is not because He is  actually far  away, but because  man, by virtue of sin,  feels himself  to be   far  away. Sin  indeed  makes us feel far away from God. A little boy once got lost in a shopping center  because he disobeyed his mother’s command to stay near her. But then he drifted away and lost  sight of her, and he began to cry  because he  feared that he had lost her, and yet  all the while she was near him.  This is what  sin  does. It makes us unsure of the nearness  of God.  Sin endows us with a sense of alienation  from God, and yet  the truth is   that  God is not far.   He is in fact  near to the humble, broken, contrite sinner.  He is also near to the  arrogant sinner  that denies His Maker. He is near in judgement to Him.

So we observe then  that  people  everywhere pray  and  we also observe that prayer is a real struggle for all people.  I wish I could say that this was  all there was to the  matter of difficulty in prayer.  But when people began to call on God in the days of Seth  there was  another problem. Not only did God seem distant because of the expulsion from paradise , the place of nearness and fellowship with God, but  there was also the fact that   the very  act of prayer had  become  corrupted.
Read the familiar story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal[1]. Everyone is praying in this story, but what is the difference  between  the prayers to Baal and Elijah’s prayer?  The priests of Baal had a God- conscience, but  they had no idea how to approach Him, because they did not know Him  according to  what He had revealed to Israel  in the OT Scriptures.  Elijah by contrast knew  YAHWEH  personally, and He walked (mostly)   with God, but the strength of Elijah’s relationship with God lay in the fact that God had  brought  him near. He had revealed His Word to Him (1 Kings 17).

There is thus true  and false prayer. In  the  Sermon on the Mount, Jesus   makes mention that  in prayer we ought  not to  “heap up empty phrases  (NIV “babbling”) as the gentiles do” (Matt. 6:7). Here Jesus  refers to a corrupted form of praying  which  makes no  gain with God.   He then proceeds to instruct His disciples  in the  art and practise of true prayer, which begins with a relationship  in which  they begin with : “Our Father in heaven!”
Even  within the  Christian  community there   are prayer  forms  that are closer to pagan  sources and practises and far from the prayer that  God  would  endorse.  This is partly because many Christians  have their ideas of prayer shaped by  unbiblical  practises and  pagan  influences.  The whole idea of  works based efforts to obtain  answers to prayer   or prayers expressed through the mediation of saints   finds no sanction in the Bible.  
Even in evangelical circles  we  frequently find unbiblical notions of prayer.  There are evangelical Christians  who  focus on correct methods and   who have a legalistic  focus  on  the conditions which we must meet,  the things we must do, in order to get our requests granted.  The  result is  that  such people  pray  out of  a sense of guilt  and not in  anticipation of   the  simple joy of   meeting with God and  fellow believers and delighting ourselves in Him.  On the other hand  there are  evangelical Christians who completely disregard  the  imperatives of Scripture with regard  to prayer  (e.g.  Eph.  6:18-20). They will make absolutely no effort to  pray    or  to delight  themselves  in the Lord (Psalm 37:4).  They are faithful pew warmers  and, but you never get the sense that they are  with you in the  great battle   that the church has to fight in her day.  There is in them  also never a sense  of   pressing  forward  to explore all the good things that God has given them   to take hold of  in this life. 

“At that time people began to call upon the name of the LORD.”   It is not as simple as it sounds. Prayer in a fallen world  is difficult, but  does that mean that there is no true prayer  to be found  in this life   in which we  currently live away from the manifest presence of God?  
No, not at all!  Prayer is possible because God makes it possible.

(i)                 God Himself   gives us help in prayer :
·         Rom. 8:27 The Spirit helps us in prayer
·         Rom.  8:34 the Lord Jesus Christ  helps us in prayer 
(ii)                He  gives us directives in prayer : Help   is given us  by way of a general outline  in the form of the Lord’s prayer  in Matt.  6 :9-13 (cf.  Lk.  11:2-4).    Here the Lord Jesus Christ helps us to  see that all true  prayer …
·         Is to be directed to the God who is our Father in heaven. Note the  familial terms  with which we are called to engage God. Prayer is not  a technique. It is a  FIRSTLY a relationship that is based on knowing the One that I am conversing with.
·         Is to be directed to Him Who is to be acknowledged as holy – set apart , Sovereign  King
·         Is to be directed to  Him who has  an  expressed  will  and purpose for mankind. It is perfectly done in heaven , but not yet  on earth. Mankind is  commanded  to seek  that  God’s will  should be established on earth
·         … allows us to pray for all our needs, physical , emotional and spiritual.

So, ultimately    true prayer is found  as God awakens the hardened hearts of His people through His Spirit and by His Word, by which Christians are now able to pray because they are helped  on the basis of much greater and much more specific knowledge. 

All this is possible because Jesus  has come to show us the Father. And so as we draw near  to this communion table with a sense of our  clumsiness  and fallenness  and distance from God, we come by the new and living way  made to us by God. We come  as always  in faith and dependence upon Jesus, the Author and Perfecter  of our faith.  There will come a  time  when  we shall be in heaven, when  prayer as we know it now will no longer exist for then we shall  be  in that place  of perfect  revelation and fellowship  with the Father. Son and Holy Spirit once again.

[1] 1 Kings 18:23-24, 27-29, 36-38

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