Worship & Prayer (Sermon)
When I was in high school, I was working on some homework when our house phone rang. Now for you students, a house phone is a rather large, archaic device attached to the wall. When you pick it up and hold it to your face, you can talk to the person doing the same in their house. Anyway, I picked up the phone, and without thinking said, “Dear heavenly Father…” I’m pretty sure I hung up then.
Our topic this morning is prayer and worship. But honestly, we often think of prayer more in terms of routine, then in terms of worship. Worship is an exciting and emotion-packed word. Prayer often seems dull and formulaic.
In a book I’m reading, the author described his experience of praying as a child. He wrote, “I prayed every night, and on nights when I hadn’t prayed for whatever reason, I couldn’t fall asleep. I’d be lying in bed wondering why I was still awake and I’d realize, Oh, yeah——I didn’t pray! Then I’d say my nightly prayer and off to sleep I’d soon be.”[I]
Have you ever felt like that when praying? Prayer is simply part of your routine. Prayer is a ritual to be performed. There can be this disconnect between what we think of as worship and how we feel about prayer. So, is prayer worship?
The answer is, “Yes.” Absolutely. Always. 100% of the time. Worship is what we love and live for. Worship expresses value and what we believe will satisfy us. When we pray, even if it’s routine, we reveal something about what we value. Prayer is always connected to worship, but prayer is not always worship of God. Let me say that again: Prayer is always worship, but not all prayer is worship of God.
In our first study of worship, we learned that our worship gravitates toward idolatry. And that’s also true of our praying. Our prayer can easily gravitate toward idolatry. In Scripture, in society, and in our own lives we can identify two types of idolatrous prayers: prayer to false gods and prayer to self.
Throughout the Bible we find examples of prayers to false gods. One of the most famous accounts is recorded in 1 Kings 18. The prophet Elijah challenges the prophets of the idol Baal to a contest. They would each pray to their god, and whoever’s god answered was the true God. So, the prophets of Baal go first, and spend all day trying to get their god’s attention—nothing works. As soon as Elijah prays to the true God, God answers immediately.
Prayers to false gods are common today.
In China, I watched devout Buddhists spin a prayer wheel as an act of worship. The wheel, carved with many figures, has a wooden center with thousands of mantras inscribed on it. When they spin the wheel, the mantras ascend as prayers to Buddha. The prayer wheel is often accompanied by burning incense and heart-felt requests by the worshipper.
Just down the street from my house is a church where people pray to dead saints. The hope is that the saints will hear their prayer and then pray for them as well. Different saints are believed to have areas of oversight and care. So, if you want to have a child, you should pray to St. Elizabeth. If you have a trip coming up, ask St. Nicholas to keep you safe. Teachers can pray to their patron saint, and soldiers can pray to theirs.
Five times a day, Muslims are required to kneel, recite the first chapter of the Koran and pray to Allah. There’s a prescribed process for the prayer which includes saying the words, “Allahu Akbar” a minimum of ten times.
One type of idolatrous prayer is praying to false gods, like Allah, dead saints, or Buddha. But the second type of idolatrous prayer is more common to most of us. That’s prayers to self. When you hear “prayers to self”, do you picture bowing down on your knees and saying, “Dear earthly self, I praise you…”? That’s not the form prayer to self usually takes. Prayer to self often addresses God, but the real worship goes to self. We have a great example in Matthew 6.
(Matthew 6:5 ESV) And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others.
Jesus said hypocrites pick the place where they are most likely to be seen by others. They want to be seen and heard and known for their spirituality. So they would find their way to the front of the synagogues where they would be seen. Sometimes they couldn’t even make it to the synagogue, their need to pray was so desperate that they would stop on the street corner to pray right there. Of course, they happened to do it in a loud voice when lots of people were gathered around.
In other words, they prayed to impress people. They wanted to be known and praised for their personal piety. But personal piety cannot be measured simply by external actions. Personal piety demands a heart that desires to do what’s right. It’s as much an issue of attitude as action. It’s about our affections more than accomplishments.
For those of us who grew up in the church, we face a real tendency toward external performance. We often hear the voices of our past asking questions like: What will people say? What will people think? Even when it comes to prayer, our focus can be looking good in other people’s eyes. We measure our spirituality by what others think about us. This is the danger Jesus is warning us about, and it’s an idolatrous perversion of prayer. It is worship, but it’s worship of our self and our image.
Praying to self can also take the form of repeating self-affirming statements, or simply consistent self-talk. I know some people who spend all day talking to themselves—not in a crazy, lock them up in an asylum way—but in a constant state of anxious self-chatter. It’s a form of prayer. Casting all their burdens on their own back to carry them in their own strength.
William Ernest Henley, a 19th-century English poet, penned a poem called Invictus—a perfect example of praying to self. He wrote:
Out of the night that covers me, Black as the pit from pole to pole, I thank whatever gods may be For my unconquerable soul. In the fell clutch of circumstance I have not winced nor cried aloud. Under the bludgeonings of chance My head is bloody, but unbowed. Beyond this place of wrath and tears Looms but the Horror of the shade, And yet the menace of the years Finds, and shall find me, unafraid. It matters not how strait the gait, How charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.
He is the master. He is the captain. He is in charge. His cry is a prayer to the only god he acknowledges—himself. His prayer is seen most often in the self-help, therapeutic platitudes plastered on Facebook walls, fixed to Pinterest boards, and sent via email. Here are some actual examples:
Every new day, teach yourself to enjoy life. This is how you can change the world.
Find happiness in every little victory…. The universe craves your contentment.
Never deny yourself the opportunity to face your fears.
When a person repeats these statements to himself or herself over and over, it’s a type of prayer born of self-worship. In each case, they determine their future. They are the focus of their love. They live for themselves. They value themselves above all, and they seek their satisfaction in a carefully planned future.
So, all prayer is worship. But not all prayer worships God. Often, prayer is a vehicle for idolatry. The question I want us to answer this morning is: What does prayer that worship God look like? Prayer that worships God includes these four elements:
Prayer that Worships God Recognizes God’s Position
(Ephesians 3:14-15 ESV) For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named,
God is our Father, and He is the Father of all Christians in heaven and on earth. The word “every” should be translated “the whole.” The whole family of believers wears God’s family name. He is Father of all who trust Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
42x in his letters and 8x in Ephesians, the apostle Paul refers to God as the Father of Christians. It was important to him, and he believed it was important for us to understand our position as children of God. In fact, the most frequently used title for God in the New Testament is Father. Prayer flows out of our relationship with God as our Father. How does the Lord’s Prayer begin? “Our Father in heaven…” We pray as children talking to our dad.
If you’re not a Christian, that means prayer will feel awkward. You don’t have that relationship with God. He’s not your Father, and so talking to Him in prayer (which is the conversation between father and child) will feel strange. If one of my son’s friends came up to me and started addressing me as father, and asking me for his allowance and where we were going out to dinner, I would find it strange. I’m under no obligation to answer him or meet his needs.
Throughout the Bible, God promises to hear and answer His children’s prayer. It’s a promise bound up in a relationship. He promises to hear His children and meet the needs of His children. If you’re not His child, God is under no obligation to hear your prayer.
There is one prayer of yours He will answer. He promises that if you call upon His name, asking Him for mercy, asking Him to save you from judgment, asking Him to forgive your sin, He will answer that prayer (Romans 10:13). He will at that moment, adopt you into His family, making you His child. Until you pray that prayer, He is not your Father, and you have no right to expect Him to hear and respond to your requests.
I love that God tells us to address Him as Father when we pray. In pagan religions, prayers were often based on fear. Prayers were offered to appease angry gods. The pagan worshippers would pray hoping to placate their deity in order to keep him from pouring out his wrath. So they would pray to the gods of sun and rain, begging them not to send a drought. Their prayers were an offering to pacify their temperamental deities. Jesus said to pray to God who is our Father. Our prayers flow from love, not fear.
But not all fathers are good. What kind of Father is God?
God is an attentive Father who knows our needs
(Matthew 6:31-32 ESV) Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.
Because He knows our needs, we can be completely honest with Him in prayer. There’s no need to try and save face with God. He knows us better than we know ourselves. He knows all of the dirtiest, darkest parts of us and loves us anyway. Not only does God know us and love us, but He also likes us. Not a future, perfected version of us, but the awkward, goofy version of us right now.
In the Psalms, we find many examples of prayer, and in those prayers, we find incredible honesty. Sometimes the psalmist complains to God, sometimes he questions where God is, sometimes he prays out of despair and depression. Is that okay? Yes, because God is his Father, and he relates to him as a child in genuine relationship.
God is a kind Father who never gives bad gifts
(Matthew 7:7-11 ESV) Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!
God is gracious and kind to His children. When we pray recognizing His love and care, His unfailing kindness, we worship Him and bring Him praise.
God’s position of honor and glory leads the apostle Paul to a position of humility. He comes to God (v.14) with a bowed knee. He comes to God empty-handed. He has nothing to offer this great God except praise, gratitude and humility. This is key to prayer that worships God. As opposed to the hypocritical prayer to self, genuine prayer delights in God’s greatness.
John Piper writes, “Prayer is the open admission that without Christ we can do nothing. And prayer is the turning away from ourselves to God in the confidence that He will provide the help we need. Prayer humbles us as needy and exalts God as wealthy.”[ii]
Prayer that worships God comes to God in humility. We come to God, not like a spoiled child demanding our Father bend His will to ours, but humbling asking God to bend our will to His.
Prayer that Worships God Reflects God’s Priorities
(Ephesians 3:16-19 ESV) that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
This prayer has three main requests: strength, love and fullness. Paul asks God to strengthen Christians by His Spirit to comprehend the mind-blowing love of Christ and experience a life completely filled with God.
First, he prays for inner Spirit-given strength so Jesus can take over your heart as His dwelling (v.16-17a). The Spirit of God resides in every Christian, but this prayer is about giving Jesus full ownership of every area of your life. We need God’s strength to expel anything fighting Jesus for allegiance in our life. We want the Spirit of Christ to take His backhoe and dig out any weeds of sin so Jesus can plant a garden of good fruit.
Second, he prays for us to grasp Christ’s love to the fullest dimension so the foundation of our life will be love (v.17b-19a). He wants God to help us know this love so great it’s unknowable. It’s bigger than we can comprehend. “When someone asked the famed jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong to explain jazz, he replied, ‘Man, if I’ve got to explain it, you ain’t got it.’”[iii] The love of Jesus can’t be explained. It must be experienced. And we can only experience it with God’s help.
Third, he prays for us to be filled with God’s fullness (19b). We know what it’s like to be filled with something. I’m sure someone’s done something to you at some point and you’ve been filled (up to here) with anger. Or have you made a mistake, and been so filled with embarrassment, “I could have died.” People are filled with jealousy over a boyfriend or girlfriend, filled with sorrow when someone dies, filled with pain so intense they can think of nothing else. What’s it like to be filled with God’s fullness?
As the Spirit of God dwells in us, what fills God—goodness, kindness, grace, mercy, peace, justice, joy—begins to fill us. It flows out of Him and into us. And it never runs dry. God never empties. His fullness can fill us forever.
Here’s how I picture it. Have you ever been to the Krispy Kreme donut shop? Once you enter, you can stand next to a window and watch them make the donuts. The donuts travel along a conveyor belt where they’re cut, cooked, and fried before they reach the frosting waterfall. If you’ve never seen the frosting waterfall, you’ve missed one of the seven great wonders of the world. The donuts travel under the frosting waterfall and emerge on the other side coated in glaze. I’ve wanted to ride that conveyor belt for years! No matter how many donuts pass under it, the frosting waterfall never slows down and never stops. Out of its fullness of sugary goodness, it coats donut after donut.
The goodness of God never runs out. Day after day, moment after moment, God fills us with Himself, yet He never empties. He is always as full as He was before He started.
The prayer requests are strength, love and fullness. Each one is spiritual, not physical. What does that teach us? God’s priorities are far more spiritual in nature than physical. His priorities extend beyond ours.
Just this week one of our members mentioned how the majority of requests on the prayer list are physical needs—cancer, sickness, job loss, safety, etc. There’s nothing wrong with praying for physical needs, but there is something wrong with never praying for spiritual needs. The apostle Paul wrote this letter from prison, yet his requests were for spiritual needs, not physical. If there is ever a time for a physical request, it’s when you’re unjustly imprisoned. But his concerns mirrored God’s. His priorities were informed by God’s priorities.
We see the same priorities in the Lord’s Prayer. There is one physical request—“daily bread,” but the prayer starts out with these requests: for God’s name to be hallowed, God’s kingdom to come, God’s will to be done, God’s protection from temptation, and God’s deliverance from evil. After the prayer, Jesus tells His disciples to not worry about food and clothing, but to seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness. In other words, seek God’s priorities. Pray for God’s priorities.
We worship God through prayer when our requests cherish Him and His work more than our wants and desires. If worship is about value, what do our requests reveal about what we value? Do we value God’s name or ours? Do we value God’s kingdom or ours? Do we value God’s will or ours? Do we pray more for physical strength or being strengthened in our inner man? Do we pray for an understanding of God’s love or understanding on our upcoming exam? Do we pray for a full bank account or to be filled with the fullness of God?
Our natural desires tend toward idolatry and worldliness, and our prayer requests reflect it.
(James 4:3 ESV) You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.
But aren’t we supposed to take everything to God in prayer? Isn’t prayer the relationship between Father and His child? How can certain requests be off-limits?
If you teach your child stealing is sin, and you also tell him to ask you for anything he needs, does that mean his request for you to help him steal the neighbor boy’s toy is okay? No. The toy is not a need. His desire to steal it is a wicked, harmful desire. As his father, you want him to come to you and say, “Right now, I’m struggling with a desire to steal that toy, but you’ve taught me the desire is wrong. Can you help me resist it?” In that moment, his priorities match yours. His relationship with you just grew stronger. He is becoming more like his father.
Our prayer (or lack of prayer) reveals what we really value. We ask for what we think is worth asking for, and at the heart of worship is worth. Prayer is a weathervane for worship. It shows us exactly where our worship is aimed. What are you most likely to pray for? When are you most likely to pray?
Health concerns? Is health your idol?
Family emergency? Is your family what you love most and live for?
Job loss? Is the safety and stability of a job what gives you comfort and satisfaction?
When we can learn to pray for God to fill us with Himself, for God to root us deeply in the love of Jesus, and for God to strengthen our hearts by His Spirit—when these are our requests—we worship God above everything and everyone else. Does not the prayer, “God fill me with yourself and let me know you more” demonstrate God’s value?
Prayer that Worships God Relies on God’s Power
(Ephesians 3:20 ESV) Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us,
There’s an old saying, “He who does the work gets the glory.” The glory doesn’t go to the one who sits in the stands and watches, but to the one in the arena. God is the one who does the work in us, molding and shaping us into what He wants us to be. When we rely on His power, He does the work in us. People see His work in us and praise Him for it.
Jesus told His disciples:
(Matthew 5:16 ESV) In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.
God works in us to produce good works just as He promised He would. The difference between God and idols is God can do what He promises. Idols can promise, but they cannot perform. The prophet Isaiah said idols do not know, do not discern, do not see, and do not understand (44:18-19). Idols cannot do anything, but God can do everything.
I love how this verse builds. It’s like a child trying to describe his trip to the zoo: “There was a lion. It was huge, really, really huge. The hugest. It was the hugest lion ever. It was more huger than any lion in the whole world.” Paul does the same thing, but he’s not exaggerating. Words fail to describe God’s power. He says:
Now to Him…
Now to Him who is able…
Now to Him who is able to do…
Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly…
Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask…
Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think…
Paul’s overwhelmed by God’s power. But Paul’s not just describing God’s power. He’s also revealing God’s desire to show us grace. God loves to go above and beyond for His children. He doesn’t bless us. He blesses us far more abundantly. Have you ever had someone go above and beyond for you? How did it make you feel? God loves to go above and beyond.
How did we ever come to the conclusion God is stingy? God delights to go beyond what you can even think. God’s plans are bigger than your dreams. God’s plans are better than your dreams. Why? Because God is more gracious and more powerful than we can even dare to hope.
Prayer that Worships God Results in God’s Praise
(Ephesians 3:21 ESV) to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.
The goal of all things is to make God’s glory known. Our goal as Christians is to spread the praise of God to all people so He will be prized by all people. This verse is very reminiscent of the very first request in the Lord’s Prayer—“hallowed be your name.”
When Jesus asks for God’s name to hallowed, He’s asking for God’s name to be set apart. He wants the whole world to understand God’s name is unlike any other and deserves unique reverence. Jesus is saying the same thing Paul says here in Ephesians, and the same thing the Psalmist did in:
(Psalm 34:3 ESV) Oh, magnify the LORD with me, and let us exalt his name together!
The request is that all of God be honored in all the world. It’s a prayer that everyone would see and understand that God is matchless. It’s a longing for the name of Jesus to be known and prized in all the earth. Praying for God to be glorified throughout the whole earth for all generations means you believe He is worthy of being treated with reverence. You can’t pray this in any meaningful way if you don’t think God is worthy of worldwide worship.
In fact, you can’t honestly pray for everyone to hallow His name, if you don’t hallow His name. The apostle Peter commanded us to “in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy…” (1 Peter 3:15 ESV). Before praise reaches your lips, it better make its way into your heart. Otherwise, it’s empty.
In your heart do you treasure God as holy? Do you believe He alone is worthy of worship and reverence? If not, then praying this prayer is nothing more than heaping up empty phrases. It’s the kind of praying Jesus condemns in the religious hypocrites. True worship is like a volcano, it’s an eruption that begins deep inside and can’t be contained. It bursts out in both praise and prayer to God.
One of my heroes is a man named Charles Simeon, who pastored in Cambridge, England for 54 years (from 1782-1836). His story is one of remarkable endurance through incredible seasons of hardship. A friend stayed with him for a few months and wrote this about Simeon: “Never did I see such consistency, and reality of devotion, such warmth of piety, such zeal and love…. Invariably he arose every morning, though it was the winter season, at four o’clock; and after lighting his fire, he devoted the first four hours of the day to private prayer and devotional study of the Scriptures.”[iv]
How did this friend see Simeon’s devotion to God? Through Simeon’s Word-saturated, prayer-soaked relationship with God. Church, we can sing songs about worship. We can talk about worship. But if we really do worship God, if we love Him and live for Him, if we value Him and look to Him for satisfaction, then we will spend time with Him. Listening to Him speak through His Word and responding in prayer. When we value someone, we talk to them. Do you talk to God?
This sermon was originally preached at Calvary Baptist Church in 2015.
[i] Rich Froning, First: What It Takes to Win (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2013), p.14.
[ii] John Piper, Desiring God, p.161
[iii] John MacArthur, Ephesians, TMANTC (Chicago: Moody, 1986), 89.
[iv] Quoted in John Piper, A Godward Life (Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 1997) p . 164.