It’s been said that prayer is to the soul what breathing is to the body. And if that’s the case then there are many of us who must be struggling spiritually. We find ourselves praying so little that our spiritual lives end up suffocating.
I sense it in my own life when I’m not praying enough; where I feel like I’m lacking the patience or the power or the joy or the hope of my faith. Because my prayer life has become so anemic.
This morning we begin our Lenten sermon and study series which is designed to help us to learn to pray more and to take prayer more seriously. This is partly in response to our Bishop’s initiative on prayer. But even beyond that what better time than the season of Lent when we focus on our spiritual lives to really take an in depth look at this. So I began asking the question: How can I help our church pray more?
And one of the questions I have is why do we not pray more? There are many reasons. Perhaps the most common answer you hear to that question is, “I’m just too busy to pray.” I’m guessing that most of us find our lives just so busy we forget, we just don’t take the time to stop and pray.
Others would say, “Well when I do pray, my mind wanders and so I feel like I’m not really connecting with God.”
And another answer you frequently hear is you tended to pray when things weren’t going very well, but when things are going well you forget to pray. Which may be a sure fire way to make sure that things start going poorly again, so you pray a bit more.
The bottom line is we all know we need to do it; we feel better when we do it regularly. And we know this is one of the most important keys to a deep and meaningful spiritual life. But even so we sometimes find it challenging to keep up in this vital spiritual discipline. And so this sermon series is designed to really encourage, to inspire you to have a deeper prayer life. I want us to be a congregation of prayer. We need to be a congregation of prayer. That’s where we find power and strength and direction and hope.
So instead of doing a series on, “Here is why we pray, here’s how we should pray, here are the benefits of prayer, (which we did in a series a few years ago) I want to look at some of the great biblical characters and examine their prayer lives and see what we can learn from them that might help us in our own prayer life.
So today we begin by studying the figure of Moses, the towering figure of the Old Testament. We’re going to learn four lessons from Moses’ prayer life today.
Well in the story of Moses, part of what we find that’s so compelling is the pictures we have of the conversations that Moses has with God. And this is captured in the scripture where it says, “The Lord used to speak to Moses face to face as one spoke to a friend.” Imagine a prayer life in which you’re conversations with God were such that God were speaking to you as if you were speaking to your friend. This tells us that there’s going to be a lot of good stuff in Moses’ life about prayer.
Now if you read through the book of Exodus and read through the book of Deuteronomy where the story of Moses is found, and scan it to find everywhere that Moses is praying you find at least four lessons from where Moses is praying. I’m sure there are more but I’d like to share these four with you this morning.
Let’s begin with Moses calling; when Moses was called by God to be the great liberator of the Israelite people. You remember the story. Moses is 80 years old. One day as Moses is taking care of the flocks of his father-in-law, Jethro, and he sees what appears to be a campfire left burning by perhaps another shepherd. He might have just walked by, but he didn’t. Instead he chooses to go and see what is happening. This is from Exodus chapter 3:
“There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush, he looked and the bush was blazing yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look as this great sight and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the LORD saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush. “Moses, Moses!” and he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.” (Exodus 3:1-4)
Here I want you to notice the first lesson from Moses’ prayer life. It’s simply, PAY ATTENTION.
Moses is taking care of his flocks, there’s a campfire. He could have easily said, “That’s interesting. Someone lit a campfire and they let it go.” And you know there was no fear of forest fires there. The terrain was basically a barren desert wilderness. But something inside him said, “I should go check on this fire.”
What most of us would have done is we would have taken a 5-gallon bucket of water and poured it on the fire and put it out. But Moses doesn’t do that either. He says, “This is strange. I need to see this. I really need to pay attention.” And then he looks and he sees that the bush is burning but it’s not being consumed. Then he goes a little bit closer. He’s paying attention.
And at that very moment because he was paying attention, God called him to do the greatest thing that he would ever do; the very thing for which he was made. But had he not been paying attention he would have missed it.
Listen carefully. In our lives God is speaking all the time. God is working all the time. It’s just that often we miss it because we’re not paying attention.
Not long ago I was walking through the building involved in doing something. And as is typical I was busy and I had a lot of things on my agenda and on my mind. And I had to make a trip into the sanctuary for some reason. As I walked through the narthex I noticed there was someone sitting in the little chapel area over in the alcove under the dove tower. I went on into the sanctuary to do what I needed to do and then back out and through the narthex and again noticed this person seated there all alone.
I went on into my office and tried to get back to working on what I was doing. And something told me that I should just pay attention. But, you know, I was busy. I had too many other things going on. And as I’m sitting there trying to concentrate on what I had to get done, I couldn’t stop thinking about the person sitting out in the alcove.
So I got up and went out there. I saw that it was a woman sitting in one of those little old pews. I recognized her as someone I have seen before here in worship but not someone I know well. And I noticed she looked like she had been crying.
And I said, “Are you okay? I just wanted to check on you.” And she looked up and she said, “You know some days are just so hard for me to get through. I have so many burdens and worries that I just can’t seem to be able to bear them all. How am I going to get through it all?” And then I sat down beside her and she began to pour out her heart to me.
And I said to her, “You know I was walking by and I saw you out of the corner of my eye and I went in and sat down in my office and something (and I believe it was the Holy Spirit) prompted me to come back out here and check on you.”
And she said, “You know just a few minutes before you came by I had prayed, God please show me a sign that you haven’t forgotten me and that somehow it’s going to be okay.” And she said, “I think you’re my sign!” And I prayed with her. And I tell you she walked away with a sense of her burden being lifted and a reminder that God was present with her. I walked away feeling like I got to be a part of something God was doing. And I felt great joy.
But I almost missed it because I wasn’t paying attention. Do you pay attention in life? Are you watching for those people who are in need of what God might use you to do? Are you paying attention to the burning bushes in your life? Because you know the burning bush from a distance actually looked like a campfire. Pay Attention. That’s the first lesson we learn from Moses’ story.
The second is a little more light hearted. It has to do with Moses’ humanity, because what happens next is really quite endearing. You know we think of Moses as this great spiritual leader; the great law-giver. So God says to Moses, “Moses, I need you to go back to the land you came from; I need you to confront Pharaoh, the very Pharaoh who wants to kill you, I need you to go back and I need you to tell him to let my people go. I have seen the suffering of my people. You have been here tending sheep for 40 years; I have been watching my people suffer back in Egypt. And I’ve heard their cries for help. Are you paying attention Moses? I need you to go back there so that I can use you to deliver my people and lead them to the Promised Land.”
Now what would a saint like Moses say in response to a request like that? Well let’s see. This is what he says. And remember he is 80 years old; this is really retirement for him. This is what Moses says:
“Lord, who am I to do this?” God says, “Don’t worry about. I will be with you.” But Moses says, “But what if they ask the name of the God who sent me?” “Don’t worry about that either. Tell them ‘I AM” sent you.” “Well, what if they don’t believe me?” “Then I’ll work a miracle in their presence to prove you’re my servant.” “Well Lord, I don’t speak well. I got an F in public speaking in high school. I can’t talk in front of anybody.” “Well don’t worry about that. I’ll put the words in your mouth.”
And then finally we get to Exodus 4:13 where we read, “But Moses said,”O my Lord, please send someone else.” Don’t you love that about Moses? I mean, I’m so glad it’s here in the text because that is our prayer much of the time. You know I find myself in places where I think, “God, please send somebody else. I don’t want to do that. I’m too tired. I don’t feel like it right now. Please Lord send somebody else.”
We often hear God speaking if we’re listening. God will say – you feel this sense, this urge inside or something you hear in a sermon or something you read in scripture. You feel like you should do this, but you come up with 1000 excellent excuses as to why it’s really not you. You know, whether its signing up for teaching children’s Sunday school or going on a mission trip or helping your neighbor whose in need; whatever it may be. “Lord, please send somebody else.”
I love the fact that Moses prayed that prayer. Now here’s the thing, we see in Moses’ prayer life his humanity. He’s just a guy. He’s just a guy like you. He’s just somebody who doesn’t want to have to do what God is asking him to do.
Now here’s the thing to notice, he gives God every excellent excuse. He tells God, “Please send somebody else,” but in the end what does he do? He goes and does it, doesn’t he?
Jesus told a parable once about a father and he had 2 sons and he told these sons to do something and the one son said, “Yes, father I will do what you ask,” and then he walked away and he never did what his father asked.
And there was another son who said, “Father, I’m not going to do it. Send somebody else.” And he left, but he reconsidered and he ended up doing the very thing his father asked him to do.
And Jesus said, “Which of these two do you think did the will of his heavenly Father?” And the answer wasn’t the one who said he would do it and then didn’t do anything. It was the one who said he wouldn’t do it, but in the end he decided to do it.
You know we come to worship every single week, me too, I come to worship every week, I’m listening for God to speak to me in the midst of leading worship and there are time when we end the service and we go, “Yes! I’m going to do that. I am going to leave here and I’m going to do this – what God has called me to do.” And then we leave and we never do it. We never act upon the thing we heard God asking us to do.
And then there are people out in the world who never darken the door of the church because they’ve said no to God, and yet they end up doing the very things that God wants them to do.
And so part of what we see in Moses is Moses is willing to argue with God – and its ok to argue with God. Nothing wrong with saying, “God, I really don’t want to do that.” Provided in the end we say, “But if you ask me I’ll do it.”
I remember the disciples were fishing and Jesus came along the seashore and he began to preach to the people. And then he turns to Peter and John and Andrew and the rest of them and he says, “Now let’s go out – put the boat out to sea and we’re going to catch some fish.” And the guys said, “Hey, we’ve been doing this all night long, Lord. We didn’t catch a thing.”
Jesus says, “I’m just telling you do this. And Peter says, “Ok, we’ve done it all night long, nothing’s happened, but because you say so we’ll go do this.” And they caught a miraculous catch of fish.
Listen. The second thing we learn from Moses and his humanity is even though he pushed back from God – and that was ok to push back with God. In the end he always said, “Yes!”
One more picture of his humanity that I really love is Numbers 11. Now in that passage we find that Moses has led the children of Israel out of slavery in Egypt, through the Red Sea and out into the wilderness. And they’ve been wandering for let’s say 20 years. We don’t know exactly how long. And do you remember what they’ve been eating all this time? What were they eating? Manna. And they’ve cooked it every possible way you can cook manna. And after 20 years of eating manna every day guess what? They were sick of it. And they began to grumble against God and against Moses. “Moses, back in Egypt we had leaks and cucumbers and fish. We had meat to eat. We’re sick of this manna. We don’t want to eat it anymore. We’re tired of it. We’re not going to eat it, and in fact we want to go back to Egypt where we could at least have fish and cucumbers and leaks. And it was all free.”
“Have you forgotten? You were slaves in Egypt? Have you forgotten that God set you free from that? The Promised Land is that way, not that way.” But they continued to grumble and complain against Moses.
Now how do you think Moses felt day after day having everybody complain and grumble against the food, and complain and grumble against his leadership, and how sick to death they were to be in the wilderness?
Well we know how he felt because we find it Numbers 11. This was his prayer. So we’re studying Moses’ prayer life? Here’s one of his prayers:
“So Moses said to the Lord, “Why have you treated your servant so badly? Why have I not found favor in your sight that you lay the burden of this people on me? Did I conceive all this people? Did I give birth to them that you should say to me, ‘carry them in your bosom as a nurse carries a suckling child, to the land that you promised on oath to their ancestors? Where am I to get meat to give all these people? For they come weeping to me and say, ‘Give us meat to eat.’ I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me. If this is the way you are going to treat me, put me to death at once.” (Numbers 11:11-15)
That sounds really holy and pious doesn’t it? But here it is, “God if this is it, kill me now. I don’t want to deal with these people anymore.”
Of course God doesn’t answer prayers like that. Now sometimes in life we’re just sick and tired of what’s happening. Sometimes it’s worse than that. Sometimes it’s like, “I don’t want to go on living anymore.” I’ve known people in my ministry who have prayed, “God I don’t want to go on anymore.” They prayed this prayer and they meant it.
God doesn’t answer that prayer. Because God can see the Promised Land that you can’t see. God knows that the day’s going to come when you’re going to thank Him for not answering that prayer. God knows that some of your best and most amazing experiences are on the horizon out there; you just can’t see it yet. And Moses was sustained by God for 20 more years. It didn’t get easier right away. But God promised to be with him. And he walked with God and he didn’t forget it. And the day came when he looked back over his life and he said, “Thank you, God, that you didn’t answer that prayer.”
From Moses we learn you don’t give up. You just keep marching towards the Promised Land and one day you’ll get there. You may not see it. It may be years but one day you’ll see it and you’ll say, “Thank you God that you sustained me and that you didn’t answer my prayer when I wanted to give up.”
The next lesson we learn from Moses has to do with what happens when people hurt us. And we come to Numbers 14. In Numbers 14 those people who’ve been grumbling about not getting meat to eat now they are so upset that they are ready to vote Moses out of leadership and to vote for a new leader.
They actually say that. They say, “This guy Moses is taking us nowhere. We’re sick of it. We want to vote for a leader who will take us back to Egypt. Moses wants to take us to the Promised Land but who knows if we’ll ever get there. Let’s go back to Egypt. Let’s get a new leader.” And they come to the point where they are ready to stone Moses to death.
I want you to imagine that. Moses led them out of the land of Egypt, led them out of slavery; parted the Red Sea. They’ve forgotten all of that. All they can think of is what they can eat next. And they’re ready to stone this man to death. And God becomes angry at this point. God’s angry with the Israelites and God, Moses thinks, is ready to kill them all.
And you know what Moses does next? This is really amazing. For all these people who were ready to kill him, these people who complained about him and were ready to vote him out of office, he prays, “God please show them mercy. God please show mercy to your children. Let me remind you, you are a God of steadfast love and abounding grace and mercy.” He prayed for the people who wanted to stone him to death.
And you know what’s interesting; from that time on we never see any sign that Moses resented the people. Somehow he let go of his bitterness and resentment towards them by praying for them.
Does that sound familiar to you? Because Jesus says this on the Sermon on the Mount: He says not only are you to love your enemies but you are to pray for those who persecute you. You’re to pray for those who wrong you. What are you going to pray, for God to kill them? No. For God to spare them, for God to show them mercy, for God to love them.
Now I can picture a little bit of how Moses must have felt over the years. And this is true, if you’re in leadership there’s going to be people who are really not happy about your leadership. And I remember back in my former congregation there was a guy who really didn’t like me. I’m not sure exactly why, but he didn’t like me. He wasn’t happy with my leadership or my style. Or my looks. To this day I really don’t know what it was. And he wrote a letter to the DS saying, “I don’t think Randy’s a very good pastor for our church and you need to send him somewhere else.” And I get a copy of this letter and I’m like, I’m devastated. “Do you know how many t-ball games and activities I’ve missed for this church? Do you know how many nights I’ve been up all night? And I was angry. I was so angry.
And this person would sit in the second row of church every Sunday. And one of the things he would do was he would time my prayers. I’m serious he would time my pastoral prayers. I guess he thought I prayed too long, I don’t know. And he would be sure to tell me each week how long I had prayed. So I’d come to preach and I’ve have to look at him, every single week, you know. They finally moved on. And no that wasn’t an answer to prayer either. But I would show up but here’s what I would do. I would remember the words of Jesus and not just on Sundays but every day, “Lord, help me to love this person. They’re a sheep in this flock. Help me to love them. Help me to bless them. Help me to encourage them. Help me to be their pastor.” I prayed that with a clinched jaw for the first three months. On the sixth month I woke up one day and I prayed that prayer and I realized I loved them. I didn’t feel bitterness toward them anymore. I actually had let that go and I actually felt love.
That’s what Moses teaches us in this story. That’s what Jesus teaches us in the Sermon on the Mount – is we pray for those who’ve wronged us. I’m pretty sure that there couldn’t be more than a handful of you in this room that you don’t have somebody you bear some bitterness and resentment towards from the past. And it may very well be that what God is asking of you to do and maybe God is speaking to you in this moment saying, “Hey, listen up. This part is for you.” Pray for them. Pray for them – for God to forgive, for you to forgive, for blessings. And you just might find that you’re the one that’s released and set free from that prayer. So we learn that from Moses in Numbers chapter 14.
So there’s lots of other lessons we could talk about from Moses’ prayer life. But there’s just one last one I’d like to mention to you. And that is the fact that Moses prays a lot in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, a little less so in Deuteronomy. But when he prays, you know what he does most of the time when he’s praying? He listens. Moses spends most of his time; most of his prayer life is about listening and not about speaking.
Most of our prayer life is about speaking and not listening, I would suspect. At least in my life, I’m pretty good at praying prayers that are theologically appropriate and spiritually right, using all the right words. It’s just that so often when I pray my prayers come from here (head) and here (mouth) and not from here (heart). Many times I finish praying and I feel like – I feel empty. I feel like I just spent time telling God how to run the universe. God really doesn’t need my help in doing that. And I fail to listen and engage my heart.
Can you imagine being married to somebody and they only speak to you once a week and when they do it to tell you what to do next? Let’s just say that they spoke to you once a day but every time they talked to you they told you what to do next. There’s no relationship there. A relationship is a dialogue with two people who are blessing each other with their words and encouraging one another; thanking one another and listening to one another.
This week I was working on my sermon on Wednesday and my little band buzzed me and reminded me to get up and take some steps. So I took a prayer walk. I’m working on a sermon on prayer; maybe I ought to take some time to pray. So as I started to pray I started to say all the same stuff I usually say when I pray – which I’m pretty sure God must get pretty bored with after a while, because I find my prayers are sometimes so uncreative because I don’t even think about what I’m going to say. It’s just what I’ve always said. So I walk out and I start praying and I start saying the normal things I do and after a little while – maybe 2 or 3 minutes – I felt like God said to me, “Would you please shut up.” Ok he was a little nicer than that – it was more like, “Just be quiet. Be quiet.” And so I got quiet. And I kept walking and I got distracted –a car pulls into the lot, and a plane flying overhead – and I get distracted. And then I kind of caught myself. “Woops, wait a minute; you’re supposed to be paying attention.”
So I said, “Speak Lord your servant listens. And I got quiet again and nothing. And then this question came into my mind: “How does God usually speak to you?” And I thought, “Well God usually speaks to me through the bible.” “What did you just read this morning?” “Well, a large portion of the Pentateuch.” Why I should think about that. So I find myself thinking through Moses’ story. And as I’m thinking about that God begins to speak to me from Moses’ story some of the things I’ve just shared with you.
And I feel like God’s having a dialogue with me. And when I came back in I felt renewed and kind of excited in my walk with him. Do you listen? Or do you just speak? Moses spent most of his time listening and the result is we have the Torah. We have the Law of Moses and the Ten Commandments.
So I want to invite you as we begin this season of Lent to spend some time every day during the day praying; talking to God and some time listening. And to spend some time reading the scripture and expecting God to speak to you through it. Daily readings.
You know sometimes when I open my bible and start to read and I’ve read these passages many times before. So I open them up and I start to read and I say, “Yep, I know that passage. And I close it up and I start to pray. A couple of weeks ago it just sort of hit me when I was doing this and I just said, “O God I’m so sorry!”
It would be like every time Robin started to say something me going, “I know what you’re going to say. Don’t bother saying it. It’s alright. Got it. Thanks!” That wouldn’t go too well would it?
We have to take time to read, and reflect, and listen. Maybe you take the time to read the scripture out loud. Then maybe take on of the verses and maybe pray that verse. And when you do that – and it doesn’t take that long or that much effort to do – when you do that I feel like God begins to speak.
What would happen if you decided that every single day you would do the daily reading? You actually pray and read the scripture at least once a day – thanking God for the blessings, praying for the people who have wronged you, and inviting God to speak and then you listen to what He has to say.
I’ll tell you what happened to Moses. His life was changed by the experience. He was a different person. He found the strength to face the things that he was facing. He found the courage to move forward toward the Promised Land; to go back to Egypt and then to move to the Promised Land. He found joy and hope and life when he spent time praying and listening for God.
Here’s how the biblical author said it: They said when Moses came down from the mountain top – he’d go up to the mountain and he’d talk to God – and when he came down from listening to God they said his face radiated with the glory of God. He was physically changed by having been in God’s presence.
So here’s how the story ends. The last chapter of Deuteronomy Moses is 120 years old. He’s led the children of Israel. He didn’t give up. He led them for 20 more years. He led them to the edge of the Promised Land. These are now the grandchildren of the people that he led out of slavery in Egypt. They’re on the eastern bank of the Jordan River near the Dead Sea and God says to Moses, “Moses, this is the end of the road for you. You’ll not be entering the land with the children. But come up to my mountain one more time and let’s have a talk.
And the 120 year old Moses slowly ascends Mount Nebo. And I envision the conversation something like this: “Moses, you’ve been my child since you were first born. I spared you in Egypt and you were raised in Pharaoh’s home. And I had plans for you. And in the wilderness when you thought that you were all alone I was there every day by your side, you just couldn’t see it. And Moses I’m so proud of the courage you showed when you went back and you demanded Pharaoh let the people go free. And I’m so grateful for the perseverance that you didn’t give up when you felt like calling it quits. Moses, look around you. Do you see the children down there, so excited to enter the Promised Land? They’d still be slaves if it weren’t for you.
Moses look over at the Promised Land, the land flowing with milk and honey, you brought them here to this place so that they might have this land. And all this happened because you trusted in me and you followed me and you listened to me and you refused to give up.”
And I imagine we’d see a tear welling up in Moses’ eye as he said, “Thank you, God for not answering that prayer I prayed so long ago. Thank you for pushing me and forcing me and leading me. Thank you for being with me every step along the way. Into your hands I commit my spirit.”
And the scripture says that Moses was taken by God. And God buried him. God himself buried Moses. No one to this day knows where his grave is. And the children of Israel wept for 30 days and then they entered the Promised Land.
The lessons from Moses life:
It’s ok to push back, but in the end do what God asks you to do.
Pray for those who’ve wronged you and you might find yourself delivered. Don’t give up. Pray for them.
And listen more than you speak – at least as much as you speak and God will change your life.
Here’s my challenge for you – it’s very simple. Would consider twice a day this next week praying to God? More than that if you like. But at least twice a day would you consider maybe beginning your day praying and using the daily reading and saying, “Speak Lord your servant listens.” And before you go to bed at night would you stop once more and thank God for your day and just offer yourself to God?
If you’ll do that twice a day for the next week, I think God will begin to change you.
Let us pray:
While your heads are bowed and your eyes are closed, I want to invite you to pray. Maybe you’d just like to follow along as I lead us in talking to God.
Would you begin by taking just a moment to thank God for the blessings in your life? You may have had lots of problems and lots of pain but somewhere under that are so many blessings. Would you take just a moment to say “Thank you.”
Maybe you’ve been so busy, your life’s been filled with so much noise that you’ve not paid attention to what God is doing all around you. So would you simply pray, “God help me to pay attention and to notice and to be used by you, to be part of what you want to do in my life? Help me to pay attention.”
Is there someone who’s hurt you in the past, someone for whom you bear bitterness or resentment? Would you take just a moment like Moses and would you pray for God’s mercy for those? Would you pray for forgiveness in your own heart? Would you pray for God to bless and keep those who have wronged you?
And finally would you simply say to God, “Speak, Lord in my life, Lord. Speak and help me to listen and help me to obey.
O God make us a people of prayer at Sterling United Methodist Church. Help us to commune with you, to fellowship with you, to trust you, to love you, to listen for your voice, to pay attention to your work in our world and in our lives around us. Help us to pray for those who’ve wronged us and to give to you the bitterness and the resentment of our past. Speak, Lord. Your servants listen. In Jesus name. Amen.
Sermon Topics: Prayer