56. Short Sermons on Prayer

Tsvi Sadan

These sermons were preached to a congregation of believers in The Land of Israel during the Summer of 1991.

1. Know Before Whom You Stand

Proposition: Prayer will go up to the G-d to whom we pray.

When I came to Yeshua, I began to pray for the first time in my life. I did not know anything about prayer. When I started to pray, I simply imitated the people whom I fellowship with. It took me years to restore my love and appreciation for prayer.

I think that what I share with you is not a unique experience. I used to dread the time of prayer for I knew exactly what to expect. People would come to pray, only to talk most of the time about what we should pray. When we began to pray, each person prayed for things I did not really care about. These prayers usually contained long a list of requests presented to G-d. We prayed for the aunt of this person whom we did not know anything about. Then we prayed for a sick person we have never heard of, and on and on it went.

G-d was not the centre of our prayer. Rather, the items we wanted from Him, they were the centre. We prayed because we had needs and we wanted G-d to meet them. Our needs are important and we should pray accordingly, but they should never replace G-d. We cannot use G-d for our purposes. To do this is sacrilege.

Little wonder that after a while, communal prayer lost its appeal. We limited our attendance in prayer meetings, and we carried our crippled understanding of prayer even into our own private devotional time. Prayer turned into a boring duty. Something we do because deep inside we know that we are supposed to do it. No joy; no anticipation; just something to get over with. Something we push to the end of the service.

My purpose in these short sermons is, by G-d’s help: to encourage us to pray more biblically. It means that unless we pray to the G-d of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and according to His instructions, we are not praying at all, just cluttering. Therefore, I choose to speak first about knowing before whom we stand. We always have to remember that our prayers will go up to the God to whom we pray.

Today we are going to consider: 1. G-d the creator, 2. G-d who makes a covenant with men, and 3. the basis for our prayer – G-d’s justice and mercy.

Nehemiah 9:6-9 says: “You alone are the Lord. You made the heavens, even the highest heavens, and their entire starry host, the earth and all that is in them. You give life to everything, and the multitudes of heaven worship you. You are the Lord God, who chose Abram and brought him out of Ur of the Chaldeans and named him Abraham. You found his heart faithful to you, and you made a covenant with him to give to his descendants the land of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Jebusites and Girgashites. You have kept your promise because you are righteous. You saw the suffering of our forefathers in Egypt; you heard their cry at the Red Sea.”

In verse 6 we see that we pray to the G-d who created Heaven and earth. The G-d who gives life to all creatures. This passage was chosen because it is straightforward. There is no unique grammar or difficult words. The context of the passage is that of renewal. The people who came back from the Babylonian captivity have just finished building the wall around Jerusalem. During and after that time they are studying the Torah under the supervision of Ezra and Nehemiah. As they go along studying, they continuously conform their life according to what they learn. An integral part of this process was prayer. In the prayer before us we can note the sense of priority they had when coming before the Lord. Despite their tremendous difficulties in fighting back the Ammonites and in their own inner conflicts (Nehemiah 5), the prayer of the Levites begins with praises to G-d.

They remind themselves who G-d is. He is the only creator and He created everything. G-d transcends His creation. He is not part of it and His essence does not depend on his own creation. The G-d to whom we pray does not need us for Him to be: we need Him, since it is He who gives us life. We are part of His creation.

Why is it so important to remind ourselves continuously who G-d is? Well, it is because we forget and go after our own ideas of who G-d is. Yeshua told a story about two men who come to the Temple to pray. The first man, the Pharisee, is a religious man. He had all the right outward signs of a person after G-d’s own heart. The only problem is that he forgot before whom he stands. The Pharisee is so sure of himself that his prayer goes up as far as his breath can reach. He is praying to himself (the Greek text says this in Luke 18:11). The second man, the tax-collector, is not a religious man. He is a sinner and he knows it. Therefore with fear and trembling he comes before G-d and begs for mercy. It is not enough to appear good before other men. What is more important than to know before whom we stand?

In verse seven we see that we pray to the G-d covenant with man.

G-d is not a part of His creation. Therefore, though remote and unreachable He did not leave it. On the contrary, He chose to enter into covenant relationship with mankind. G-d has committed Himself to mankind and therefore He is near, always close to those who call upon His Name. G-d, though totally separate from His creation made Himself available to us. What a breathtaking thought! This is why the Levites reminded themselves and their audience that G-d made covenant with our father Abraham.

The nearness of G-d is the basis of our approaching Him. If He did not choose to have relationship with man, how in the world could we pray to Him? We would not even know His Name. If He did not choose to reveal Himself to us, then we would be like the people in Athens who prayed to the unknown god. This is why whenever people worship G-d and put their trust in Him, they call upon His Name. Therefore, the G-d before whom we stand is the G-d who is wholly other yet ever so near. G-d is not remote and unconcerned. He is in the midst of us, ever ready to hear our cry.

How can G-d be wholly other, set apart from the creation, yet be here with us? It reminds me of the relationship between a mother and her newborn child. In a very real sense the mother is totally different from her child. Her existence does not depend on the well-being of her child. Yet her voluntary commitment to the child’s needs will be fulfilled by her. She can do without the child if she chooses but instead, out of her love, she links her life to the life of her baby.

What is the meaning of this? Why is it important for us to know that G-d is the creator and the covenant maker? The G-d who is wholly other, yet dwells in the midst of His children. Since G-d is the creator of everything His creatures owe their existence to Him. This is why we read in our passage that all the host of heavens worship Him (verse 6). Yet G-d does not only maintain His creation; He loves it. He loves us. So, G-d sustains us even though He did not have to: this points to His mercy. It is only because G-d has mercy on us that we can pray to Him. His mercy allows us to approach Him and talk to Him.

More practically, it means that since G-d is wholly other, He is holy, and because He dwells among us, the ground we live on is holy. It is said that the earth is a footstool to His feet. It means that everything we do, say and think have to express our awareness of who G-d is. Otherwise, we may find that we pray only to ourselves. The Sages said that we must always behave as though we have a king in our house. In the same way, when we pray, we must speak as though we speak to king.

Everything must show this. For example, out of reverence to G-d the people stood when they prayed or read the Torah (verses 3 and 5). For the same reason, they exalted Him before they asked anything.

The gates of heaven are open for those who know before whom they stand. G-d forbid that we will end up viewing ourselves as self-righteous people who ridicule others, taking G-d’s mercy for granted. If we want G-d to hear our prayers, we must always remember the G-d to whom we pray created the heaven and the earth. Yet He did not stop there. He, by His great mercy made a covenant, a covenant of love with mankind. This is why we can pray to G-d. Our praises to G-d should be our first words of prayer. This will help us to remember before whom we stand.

It is said that G-d dwells in the praises of Israel, and Yeshua said: “Whenever two or three gather in my name I will be among them.”

The following prayer is taken from the Siddur and modified by adding a portion from the New Testament:

“Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the universe, who forms light and creates darkness, makes peace and creates all.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. All things came into being by Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.

And in mercy He gives light to the earth and to those who dwell on it; in your goodness You renew the work of creation every day, constantly. How great are your works, 0 Lord! In wisdom You have made them all; the earth is full of Your creations. You alone, 0 King, have ever been exalted, praised and glorified and extolled from days of old. Eternal God, show us Your great mercy! You are Lord of our strength, our defending stronghold, our saving shield, our protector.

In Yeshua your Son, we exalt Your great Name. Amen.”

2. Prayer: The Service of the Heart

Proposition: G-d hears the prayers of those who confess and forsake their sins.

We have considered the fact that in prayer we must know before whom we stand. Our prayers are not some sort of magic, or some sort of Mantra like the Ohoom that Hindus chant when trying to control the universe, believing that special sounds have power within themselves. There is no merit in the repetition that some make, perhaps believing that if they repeat the name of their god many times he will eventually hear them and do their will.

The very thought that we can control G-d by sound effects is foreign to the Bible. The attempt to provoke G-d by some magical word, or repetition of it, is nothing less than turning G-d into an idol. As we have seen, our only basis to approach G-d in prayer is His mercy and justice.

Another aspect of prayer that we can consider is confession. Our confession declares whom G-d is. It says that He is a holy G-d and we are not. The person who confesses knows that without G-d’s mercy and compassion his prayers cannot be heard.

Confession, just like praise, is a prayer. Maybe it does not fit our concept of prayer, but it is a prayer. Prayer, among other things, is the expression of our faith that there is a G-d, and He is merciful and compassionate.

Let us begin to explore the meaning of true confession. We will talk about: 1. Our response to the Law of G-d, 2. The service of the heart, and 3. Confession and repentance.

Our response to the Law of G-d

In Nehemiah Chapter 9, Verse 2, we read: “Those of Israelite descent had separated themselves from all foreigners. They stood in their places and confessed their sins and the wickedness of their fathers.”

There are some things that I will never grow tired of saying. One of them is our need to study the Word of G-d continually, constantly. We recall that this prayer, recorded in Nehemiah Chapter 9, was the result of the reading of the Law. Why are the people lamenting here? Didn’t they just finish building the wall – an outstanding accomplishment and a good reason to rejoice? Well, they lament, because they are responding to what they read in the Book. They begin to realise that they broke the Law of G-d. With it they also realise the results of it.

Their response is twofold. First, they separate themselves from the foreign people (sinners). Second, they acknowledge their and their father’s sins. They have separated themselves from the foreigners because they saw that their close ties with them caused them to break the Law of G-d. This non-critical relationship with foreign people led to intermarriages and commerce on the Shabbat day.

The second response was the confession of their sins. Their awareness of sin came because they compared themselves with what they heard from the Word. I would like you to note here that they confessed their own sins and the sins of their fathers. They do not blame their fathers for their condition, only acknowledging that they have sinned before G-d.

Today, we do not separate ourselves from people who are foreign to our beliefs. We do not have to be separated from them physically as the community of Nehemiah did. Yet we do need to make a distinction between the world and us.

The repenting community in Jerusalem knew something we tend to forget. They knew that their renewed faith was not faith alone. As their hearts began to change so did their deeds.

Our renewed hearts do not tolerate sin. Therefore we seek to separate ourselves from elements that can cause ‘us ‘to stumble. Elements that, before, were part of us.

Renewed faith always accompanies itself with confession. When we come to know the G-d of Israel we also come to know our sinful nature. Our confession shows that we are willing to accept the fact that we are the only one to blame for our present situation. We cannot even blame our parents.

We must see that the modern man tries to avoid taking responsibility for his actions. He blames his parents for messing up his life. If a crime is committed, the first thing a good defence lawyer will try to do is to find some form of psychological malfunction to prove that the criminal is not responsible for his actions.

The renewed person, on the other hand, takes full responsibility for his sinful behaviour. That, in turn, leads him to repentance.

To sum it all up. When studying the Word of G-d, we begin to see that we fall short of His standards. This leads us to pray to G-d and seek His mercy. We confess our sins and, by doing so, we declare the righteousness of G-d.

Yesterday’s Temple Service is the Service of the Heart

In Romans 12:1 we read:

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship.”

Leaving Nehemiah for a while, we turn to the Book of Romans in order to see the close relationship between confession, repentance and sacrifice. The ties between the two will help us to understand the importance of confession as a part of our daily prayer.

Paul said that our body is a living sacrifice; a living sacrifice that offers spiritual service to G-d. What is this spiritual service? Part of it is our prayers. Prayer as a sacrifice is not a new concept. In fact, Jewish theology was using the same concept. They call it “the service of the heart”.

In the times when sacrifices were still offered to G-d, confession was part of the ceremony. The clearest example for it we find in Leviticus 16:10,21. Aaron was instructed to send a living goat as a sin offering. We read that, “the goat … , shall be presented alive before the Lord, to make atonement upon it . . .”, and in Verse 21 of the same chapter we read of the same goat that, “Aaron shall lay both of his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the sons of Israel, and all their transgressions in regard to all their sins…….”

Later, the prophet Hosea (Chapter 14, Verse 2) will carry it a step further and say: “Take away all iniquity, and receive us graciously: so will we render the calves of our lips.”

From these verses we learn that confession was part of an acceptable sacrifice, whether a goat or our lips.

In the light of it, when Paul speaks about a living sacrifice, he has in mind confession of sins. Though it is true that Yeshua took away our sins we, nevertheless, need to confess them and repent of them.

Why is confession so important? Because our confessions are the means by which we present a blameless sacrifice to G-d. We know that the smallest blemish on the animal would make it unacceptable to G-d, so it is with our prayers. Unconfessed sins will make them unacceptable.

Confession and Repentance

Understanding the relationship between prayer and sacrifice we turn our attention back to Nehemiah.

Earlier, we made a distinction between confession and repentance. Now we consider the difference. In simple terms, confession is acknowledgement that we sinners. Repentance is the outcome of that realisation. That is, we forsake our sins. The Israelites in Jerusalem confessed their sins and separated themselves from them.

This is extremely important. If we only confess our sins without repenting we have not accomplished anything. For this reason we read in Proverbs 28:13 that, “He that covers his sins shall not prosper: but he who confesses and forsakes them will find compassion.”

I regret to say that many people do not take this seriously enough. There are many people in the church who constantly are confessing their sins but never repent of them. A Jewish proverb says that, “He who confessed and did not forsake his iniquity is as though he baptised holding a creeping animal in his hand.”

In other words, not only that he goes to the Mikvah unclean, but he also contaminates the water that other people are using. The damage of such an act is not only for himself, but for the community as well.

To conclude, prayer is our sacrifice and, therefore, it needs to be blameless. Confession of our sins is the means by which the merciful G-d opens the gates of heaven before us.

Yet, confession and repentance are not a guarantee that we will never commit the same sin again. G-d does not look for people without sin. There is no such thing. What G-d looks upon is our heart: the service of the heart.

Paul realised this condition. He said that what he wants to do he cannot do, and what he does not want to do, this is what he does. Therefore, he said, this is not me who does these things but the sin within me. Therefore, THERE IS NO CONDEMNATION IN CHRIST JESUS. Yet Paul, when he said it, never referred to habitually live sin. We must always desire to separate ourselves from sin. We must always confess and repent of it, and G-d, who sees in the secrets, will reward us.

3. Ask and it Shall be Given

Proposition: G-d vowed to fulfil the cry of the righteous.

When we know before whom we stand we are led to confess our sins and forsake them. So if is written in Proverbs 28:13, “He that covers his sins shall not prosper: but he who confesses and forsakes them will find compassion.”

When, and only when, we come with such an attitude, we may reverently proceed and lay before G-d our pleas. If we fail to acknowledge who G-d is we may find ourselves treating G-d as a cosmic vending machine. To say it in other words, we can at times quote the right verses and remind G-d of His promises, but that in itself does not guarantee anything. A machine responds to the correct amount of money that you put in it, regardless of your spiritual and physical condition. G-d cannot be controlled in such a way. If we want G-d to hear our cry, we must also obey His commands. With this in mind we can look at the Scriptures regarding the subject of asking the Lord G-d Almighty to act upon our requests.

The prerequisites for answered prayer are given in Isaiah 58:6, “Is this not the fast which I choose, to loosen the bonds of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and break every yoke?”

The commitment of G-d is given in Isaiah 58:9, “Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry, and He will say, here I am.”

Matthew 7:12 indicates what we can ask and how, “Therefore, however you want people to treat you, so treat them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”

Yehudah HaLevi listed a number of principals for us (The Kuzar, 156,157)

a. Communal prayer will never include things that can hurt the individual, while

b. An individual might pray for things that may hurt other individuals.

c. Prayer must be profitable to the world.

d. The duty of the individual is to bear hardships or even death for the sake of the welfare of the commonwealth.

We conclude with a short Word Study which is set in the context of Scriptural references relating to the words. This will assist in meditation on the themes which the words convey:

a. Etchanan: “I will call to you O Lord, and I will beseech you O God” (Psalm 30:10).

b. TePhilah: “Give ear to my words, O Lord, consider my groaning. Hear the sound of my cry for help, my King and my God, for to Thee do I pray’ (Psalm 5:2).

c. Atar: “And Isaac pleaded to the Lord …” (Genesis 25:21).

d. Paga: “As for you, do not pray for this people, and do not lift up cry or prayer for them, and do not intercede with Me” (Jeremiah 7:16). e. Siyach: “I pour out my complaint (words) before Him; I declare my trouble before Him” (Psalm 142:2).

f. Darash: “So she went to inquire of the Lord” (Genesis 25:22).

g. Chalah: “I entreat Your favour with my whole heart; be merciful and gracious to me according to Your promise” (Psalm119:58).

h. Bikesh: “Let us go at once to entreat the favour of the Lord, and to seek the Lord …” (Zechariah 8:21).

(Reprinted from Tishrei Vol 3 No 3, Prayer, Autumn 1995)