May 7, 2018

Prayer's Effectiveness - Matthew 7:7-12

Theme: Prayer Keeps us From Overreacting
1. By acknowledging our limitations
2. By trusting God’s will in Christ

Matthew 7:7-12 "Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. 8 "For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. 9 "Or what man is there among you who, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? 10 "Or if he asks for a fish, will he give him a serpent? 11 "If you then, being 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! 12 "Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.

When’s the last time someone overreacted in front of you? We all know it happens, right? People get bent out of shape over things – often things that don’t matter all that much. No one likes when this happens either, whether you’re the person who does it or the one who experiences it. Think of the little kid who doesn’t get exactly what he wanted for his birthday or who doesn’t get picked first for the kickball game. Overreaction. Let’s not just focus on little kids either. Consider the teen who gets their phone taken away as a discipline or isn’t allowed to stay out as late as they’d like to with their friends. Overreaction. And surely, grown adults are not immune either. The weather turns ugly and ruins the long-awaited and planned vacation. People take a little too long in the grocery check out line. Grandma so and so can’t decide what to order in the take-out lane. Overreaction. And the list goes on and on.

Sometimes, we’re so foolish in our reactions that it spills into our faith. We think of such a reaction here in our text during a lesson about prayer. The statement primed for the outburst of reaction comes in verse 11: “If you then, being 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!”

Think about what Jesus says here. There’s a positive message about the Father’s gifts to His children – no one has an issue with that. However, that positivity is contrasted with the gifts we offer as sinful humans – even the good ones. Jesus is highlighting the Father’s grace by showing the insufficiency of our own gifts. Sure, we know how to be nice to one another, but not even near the level of what God does for us. When Jesus says, “how much more…” He is expressing a greatness of both quantity and quality. God the Father is able to give more than us and give better than us.

The key difference is holiness. No matter how good our own actions are, they are not done in righteousness. We are still evil people because of our sin. We are still limited people because of our sin. The truly amazing aspect of Christ’s work of salvation on our behalf, is that His actions become ours. Therefore, faith offers a way to serve as God serves – to give on His level, in righteousness. But, only through Jesus. Here’s where the overaction comes in. The unbelieving world doesn’t like this distinction because it excludes them. They don’t like the passages of Scripture that tell us, “without faith it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6)” and “There is none who does righteous, no not even one (Romans 3:10).” The world doesn’t like this because it shows that even the best of our actions cannot measure up the treasures given by Christ.   

You’ve heard this overreaction before. You have probably even felt it in your own heart. It goes something like this: “How dare a Christian insinuate that my works aren’t as good as theirs!” Notice, from the start, the focus on the person and not the Savior. What the Word of God tells us about this truth is that it’s all about God. The Christian is simply the vessel through which God works. It’s not about comparing one person to another. It’s about comparing Christ to sinners. And in Christ, we can do His will. Think about it from the other perspective. Who would want to believe in a God whose works are no different from those whom He is supposed to save? All unbelief seeks to lower God down to our level. To fashion Him in our image, instead of being conformed to His.

You don’t have to feel minimized by standing for Christ above yourself. You don’t have to be angry or ashamed at the prospect of not being good enough on your own. Perhaps Jesus puts this statement in here, which is so prone to overreaction, at the topic of prayer for the express purpose of pointing us to our needs. Isn’t that what prayer is for? Jesus says earlier: "Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. 8 "For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened.” Jesus wants us to come to Him and receive, but those who have no needs won’t do that.

Here, Jesus was speaking to the common people – during His sermon on the Mount. This was no judgment upon the hypocritical Jewish leaders, just ordinary people like you. However, Jesus did say something similar to the Pharisees: Jesus answered and said to them, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. "I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance (Luke 5:31-32)."

The truly hypocritical Christian is the one who spends time making themselves look good but is dishonest about needing Jesus. The world despises hypocritical Christians. Yet, at the very same time, they despise the truth that protects us from hypocrisy, that our works and not as good as God’s. You see, the height of unbelief is playing the comparison game with other people. Without God in your life, it’s a constant rat race to try to be the best. Therefore, the world overreacts when Christians speak about serving in righteousness by faith as the higher call. Yet, by the same token, they despise Christians, who do the opposite, who talk good but don’t practice their faith. The world does both because it is fueled by comparison.

Jesus, in contrast, wants us to look to Him. Look to Him to compare, not to others. Look to Him for help, not to yourself. Jesus is above the struggle and toil of this world. Jesus is not caught up in the never-ending quest to prove Himself better than others. Don’t be misled, Jesus is better than others. But unlike sinful humans, He doesn’t spend His time trying to constantly prove it and show it to the detriment of other peoples’ lives. He proved it once for all, in complete love, when He offered up His life for everyone in the world.

Prayer is the gift that Jesus now gives to keep us attached to Him. Look at the certainty with which Jesus speaks. He wants His children to have confidence that He will hear their prayers and bless them. But the nature of a Christian’s prayer is like its blessings – both are unique in Christ. Both the nature of prayer and what God gives us through prayer are built around Jesus. This tells us that a devoted faith and prayer life, which trusts Jesus above all things, will be different than the things we do on our own. To say that we trust in Jesus and we desire to communicate with Him through prayer, yet defiantly hang onto the justifying our own actions against His makes no sense – and God’s point here is that it impedes our prayer life and faith. The very confidence we have in faith stems from the fact that it is Jesus alone whom we trust – even over ourselves.

Therefore, in faith and in prayer, there is no need to overreact. When we overreact because of the glaring contrast between God’s holiness and our sinfulness, it hampers the gospel’s effect in our hearts. The apostle James writes in his letter about prayer, saying, “You do not have because you do not ask (James 4:2).” Think of how many Christians limp along weakly in their faith simply because they do not communicate with God – they fail to even ask. Too many of these situations are borne from an overreaction to the Word of God, when it tells us about the honest, but unpleasant truth about my sin.

When we get upset at God for telling us that our works are less than His, it implants a death trap in our minds that is directed at our faith. It’s one thing to believe a lie – that’s dangerous enough. But, some lies we feel justified in believing. If we are self-righteous in our actions, even to the point of thinking we are as good as God or that we don’t need God, we are committing idolatry. And why pray to another God when you control and dictate the matters of your life?

Jesus is focusing on something greater than mere human morality – what we might call civil goodness. Jesus is talking about the “Law and Prophets” morality – the type of goodness that only comes from through the Holy Spirit working through the Word. Jesus says at the end of our text: "Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.

Jesus paired this thought with loving God above all things as the summary of God’s will. This is the higher morality. What God deems as righteous comes down to not only what is done but how it is done. Basic human nature simply looks at what is done and deems it right or wrong, but it never considers the source. Therefore, human morality changes and is often dictated by the majority in the culture. Jesus, here, when showing the difference between our works and God’s, points to the source as well – the Law and Prophets. The difference between works done in faith and those done without faith – comes down to both the nature of Christ and the source through which He reveals and shares Himself with us. On our own, we have neither the nature of Christ or the source of His Word, whether we call our actions good or not.

Prayer gives us confidence in God’s blessings through Christ, and dispels the insecure fear of losing our own power in the situation. The uniqueness of faith and prayer is that to have them we have to lose something first. Most people never get past this because they overreact about what they lose. Confessing sins. Getting rid of anger and pride. Trusting in God’s will. Leaving all control to Him. These are things we give up from our own hands.     

But, if our God is the only one. If He is better than anyone else. If He can bless in ways no one else can even imagine, is it worth hanging onto our control at the expense of our faith? Should we not strive to serve a God that is higher than us, and that can grant blessings in greater supply and quality than us? There’s no need to fear in our faith about what we might miss out on – for all the treasures of heaven are found in Christ Jesus.

Be confident in your Savior. Don’t go without simply because you didn’t ask. Don’t limp along in faith because you’re wrestling with God for control. There is security and confidence in trusting Jesus – trusting Him over the threats and temptations of the world, but even more so, trusting Him over the fears of your heart. Your heavenly Father knows you. He knows your needs. He knows your desires. He knows your mistakes. He knows your fears. And He’s given you His Son in place of them all. Faith in Jesus and operating by prayer is about living in reality – the good and the bad. It’s about being open and honest with God in all matters. And through faith, those blessings of our Lord and Savior are unrivaled. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

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