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TEXT: Isaiah 64:7
SUBJECT: Luther on Prayer #3
Tonight, with God's favor, we'll complete the study we began a couple of weeks ago. It's Martin Luther on Prayer. One day, Luther was sitting in a barber's chair getting a haircut and shave. His barber was Peter Beskendorf, a fine man, it seems, who often struggled to pray. He asked his friend, Dr. Luther, how do you pray? The Reformer went home and wrote him a thirty page letter, which is now collected in Luther's Works, Volume 43. The title pretty well explains what it's about: A Simple Way to Pray, for a Good Friend.
In the first part of the letter, Luther counsels him on some preliminary matters. He tells him to:
After saying all this, he finally comes to the content of prayer or what to pray about in your daily devotions. Most of us start with our needs-for forgiveness, for healing, for a job, for God's blessing on our family, our friends, our witness, and so on. These are good things to pray for! But Luther says Don't start with them!
"Start with the commandments".
THE TEN COMMANDMENTS
By "the commandments" he means the Ten Commandments. What does He do with them? He explains:
"Out of each commandment, I make a garland of four twisted strands. That is, I take each commandment first as a teaching, which is what it actually is, and I reflect upon what our Lord God so earnestly requires of us here. Secondly, I make out a reason for thanksgiving. Thirdly, a confession and fourthly, a prayer petition".
This is Luther at his clearest and most helpful. Take one of the Commandments and pray over it as he advises. Take the commandment: You shall not steal.
First, think about what it means. It means I should not take what doesn't belong to me. That's the surface. But what attitudes lie beneath the surface. Why do people steal? They do it because they're too lazy to work, or because they envy people who have more than they do, or because they're not content with what God has given them, or because they like seeing others suffer. Thus, the wicked attitudes that lie behind stealing are not limited to people who actually do the deed!
Which one of us is totally free from the sins of laziness, envy, discontentment, or malice? To the best of my knowledge, I've never stolen anything. But I'm guilty of these sins every day! It is only God's Restraining Hand that keeps me from being a thief.
Next we have thanksgiving. Thinking about the meaning makes me thank God for his Restraining Hand-on me and others. What if the fear of God-and the fear of getting caught-were suddenly taken out of the world? Nothing would be safe! No door would be thick enough, no alarm would be loud enough, no gun would have enough bullets, to keep people from robbing me blind! I should be very thankful for God's restraint on others.
And on myself too! What if I had had a different sort of parents? What if I had fallen in with the wrong crowd at school? What if-at heart-I wasn't a chicken? I might well be a thief! How grateful I ought to be for God keeping me off that way of life.
Then we have confession. No, I'm not a thief in the sense that I rob people. But I've often felt envy and malice for others; I've also wanted things more than I've wanted to work for them; and I've not always been content with what the Lord has given me. Thinking about theft makes me confess my sins of envy, malice, discontent, laziness, and other things too.
Lastly, we have a request. I ask the Lord to keep me from stealing and to replace the laziness in my heart with a desire to work, to change malice into love, envy into thankfulness, and discontent into being happy with what I have.
This is just an outline, of course. You can fill in the blanks for yourself. You can give thanks for your home, your job, or your bank account (even if there's not much in it). You can name particular acts of envy or times of unthankfulness. And so on.
You can see-can't you-how helpful this is in stimulating prayer, and keeping your devotions from getting dull and repetitious. And from running out of things to say in prayer.
The Ten Commandments are good to think and pray over. But Luther doesn't stop there. He goes on to.
THE LORD'S PRAYER
He divides the Lord's Prayer into seven petitions (though some number them differently). He tells us to pray each one, but before going on to the next, think about what it might include-and pray about these things too. Here's an example:
"Hallowed by Thy Name. Yes, dear Father, hallowed by Thy Name, both in us and throughout the whole world. Destroy and root out the abominations, heresy, and idolatry of the Turk, the Pope, and all false teachers and fanatics who wrongly use Thy Name and horribly blaspheme it. They boast that they teach Thy Word, though they really use the devil's deceit in Thy Name to seduce many poor souls throughout the world, even killing and shedding much innocent blood, and in such persecution, they believe that they render Thee a Divine service.
Dear Lord, convert and restrain them. Convert those who are still to be converted that they may, with us, hallow and praise Thy Name. Restrain those who are unwilling to be converted, so that they would be forced to cease from dishonoring Thy holy Name and from misleading the poor people".
I bet you didn't think of all this the last time you read or recited the Lord's Prayer, did you? And yet, everything he says-and much more--is legitimately contained in the first petition.
If you want God's Name to be hallowed, then of course, you pray that you would do it yourself. But not only you and your immediate family and friends, but also others, including God's enemies who are right now blaspheming His dear name, either in curses or in heresies, or in lying oaths and more.
Have you ever heard the Lord's Name taken in vain? Maybe at work or at the store or on TV, radio, or at the movies? Why don't you pray the people who do it-and the ones who write it for others to say-would become saved and start loving that Name, or at least, be restrained from dragging the Holy Name through the mud?
Do the Jehovah's Witnesses invoke the Sacred Name of Jesus Christ? Sure they do-in every sermon, Bible study and front door visitation. Pray that they would be converted so that when the say, "Jesus Christ" they don't mean God greatest creature, but rather, what He is, in fact: Emmanuel-God with us!
Luther was far smarter and more learned than anyone here, of course, and was able to see connections we'd miss. But still, you can think of some things the petitions suggest, can't you?
As you pore over the Lord's Prayer, say them to God in yor devotions.
This is the second thing Luther used in warming his heart and finding matter for prayer. There's one more:
THE APOSTLES CREED
"If you have more time or inclination, you may treat the Creed as you did the Ten Commandments, and make it into a garland of four strands".
The Apostles Creed, you know, is not in the Bible. But, though we might quibble with a word here or there, we have to admit that it's a fine summary of what the Bible teaches about God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, salvation, and so on.
Luther says take an article and think over its meaning, thank God for it, confess the sins it brings to mind, and offer a petition it suggests.
The first article is: "I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth".
Now, I don't believe it would be too hard to come up with a doctrine from that one, would it? Maybe the existence of God or the Father's relationship to the Son and Holy Spirit or His Almighty power or His work of creation. One short sentence full of deep and varied theology!
Is there anything here to thank God for? How about His existence? Where would you be if the fools were right and there was no God? Can you imagine the appalling despair that must lead to? In His great book, The Brothers Karamozov, the author has a character say:
"If there is a God all things are impossible. If there is no God, all things are permitted".
He's right. About forty years after Dostoyevski's death Russia tried living as though there was no God, and look where it got them: 60 million murdered by one man, a former seminarian who no longer believed in God.
This leads to a confession: How often have we lived as though there was no God. I don't believe I've ever denied the existence of God, but I ignored Him more than I can say. There's a lot to be confessed in the First Article of the Apostles Creed.
The request would be something like: Help me, Lord to live in your Presence and to make others know-by my words and my life that there is a God and that He is good and willing to save them, too.
This is how Martin Luther prayed. He depended on God to help his prayers, of course, but he was not looking for daily miracles, God stirring his heart with a warm zeal and a giving him a mind full of things to pray for. No, Luther depended on the Lord for inspiration, but he also used ordinary means of filling his mind and softening his heart for prayer.
I think Luther is right on here. You become a man of prayer through the blessing of the Lord, but the blessing of the Lord uses ordinary means. Devout farmers depend on God, but they also plow, plant, weed, water, and pick. We need to remember that in our prayers: they're not magic. God is sovereign in giving the spirit of prayer and we are responsible for keeping up our prayer lives.
This one thing I would add to Luther: you can apply his advice to any part of the Bible, such as a Proverb or a promise or even a historical narrative.
I can't give the details here, but think it over and it won't be that hard to do. Godspeed!
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