In the Name...
A Sunday School teacher asked her class if any of them could define "prayer." One little boy raised his hand and said, "Prayer is when we talk to God." "Very good", the teacher replied, "And when do we pray?” she asked. A little girl raised her hand and answered, "At bedtime and on Sunday - when the rates are lower." That really dates this joke, doesn’t it?
When the name of King Solomon is mentioned, we think, at once, of his legendary wisdom and a famous child custody case. His wealth is estimated to have exceeded billions in today's money. His military successes expanded his realm and influence. And, in the story of the Queen of Sheba, politics and romance blend into a Hollywood script. Prelude to all this, however, is the incident related in today's lesson, a lesson about a prayer.
Solomon's father, David, had taken a handful of feuding little tribes and moulded them into a united kingdom taking its place on the world stage. He was known as a man after God's own heart - a hard act to follow. But, now he was dead and the task of rule fell to the 20-year-old Solomon. So, to prepare himself, he goes to the ancient shrine at Gibeon and there, God comes to him and says, "What shall I give you? Ask."
Think about that. The sovereign Lord of Heaven and Earth puts an unlimited credit card in the hands of a 20 yr. old. Amazing. Now, think about this. He does exactly the same thing with each one of us. Luke 11.9 "Ask and it will be given to you." John 15.7 "If you abide in me and my words abide in you, what you ask will be done for you." These are not just promises for kings, these are for the ordinary believer and many say that this is what prayer is all about.
Ah, but, while prayer is a wonderful thing, a source of strength and comfort, it's also the Achilles' Heel of religion because there's not one person, in or out of church, synagogue, mosque, or temple, who can claim 100% success in receiving and a story like Solomon's flies smack in the face of what so many people have experienced. They ask, and do not receive.
And many try to explain this away by saying that it's a matter of how strong your faith is and whether you have doubts. But, who doesn't have doubts? And how strong is strong? No good answers there.
So, let's look at Solomon's prayer experience more closely and see if we can find some clues as to why he received. First, notice who initiates the encounter - God, not Solomon. There's a story told about two farmers, one rich and the other poor. During a drought, both went to the church and knelt before the altar. The rich farmer quietly bowed his head, but, the poor farmer cried out loudly, "O Lord, O Lord, hear my prayer, hear my prayer." At this, the rich farmer asked the poor one. "How much do you need to get by?" "About $10,000.” he answered. Immediately, the rich farmer wrote a cheque for the entire ten thousand and handed it to the poor farmer who thanked him profusely and left. The rich farmer then turned back to the altar and said, "Now, God, if I may have your undivided attention."
No. Prayer does not begin with us going up to God and saying, "Excuse me, may I have your attention?" Actually, that's God's line. May He have our attention? Prayer is our response to God after He has spoken to us.
But, here’s where some people say that if God knows our minds and that even the hairs of our heads are numbered - some fewer than others - why say anything to Him? Why not just go about our business and let Him read our minds? Well, "why not" is because God gave us the gift of intelligent speech and he expects us to use it to communicate not only with each other but, with Him.
“Our Father who art in heaven” likes to hear our voices say those words. It means we think He's listening. Verbal prayer is an act of faith, and not only faith, it's an act of relationship. We talk to each other. Why not to God?
And Solomon shows us another aspect of prayer in the way he begins his response to God. He expresses thanks for past favours. Don't we all like to be thanked when we've done something good? Why should God be different? And, what has he done for us? The old phrase "count your blessings" isn't just a trite cliché; it's good advice. We can only be thankful if we remember what we got. And, as God keeps giving us things all the time, we need to thank Him all the time.
And finally, Solomon calls himself a "little child". Not literally, of course, but, that is his poetic way of saying he is awed by God. Are we? How many of us have experienced true awe? We live in a very cynical society. We’re fearless, but, we have fears. We want respect, but, don't give it. We want to be trusted, but, we don't trust. Awe is in short supply, yet we need it to approach God.
And in his awe, Solomon doesn't ask for health, wealth, or victory, he asks for "an understanding mind", for wisdom. He doesn't ask for the benefits which will make him an important person, he asks for the quality which will make him a good servant - of God.
No wonder the text continues, "It pleased the Lord." It pleased the Lord. And Solomon got his wisdom - and his health, wealth, and victories, none of which he had requested, but, which God knew he would need. So, here we have one prayer and a lifetime of effects.
Ah, but, the story doesn’t end here. It goes on. The brevity of the Biblical account can deceive us, but, in fact it is twenty-four years before we read that God again speaks to Solomon. Twenty-four years in which king and people have prospered. But, this time God comes not because Solomon is in a thankful frame of mind or filled with awe for his Maker. No, God comes because Solomon is not praying. He has stopped praying. Indeed, he has forgotten how to pray. The blessings he enjoys have become distractions. He has traded his godly wisdom for worldly cleverness. He has become the centre of his own little universe. And, God comes to warn him what this will mean.
"Seek first the kingdom of God", Jesus told his disciples and that's how Solomon started, but, he ended up seeking first the kingdom of this world and his great empire did not survive him.
You and I will never have to worry about being kings with royal distractions, but, we have more than enough of our own distractions to turn a God-focused prayer life into a self-focused one. We may not have the wisdom and riches of Solomon, but, we have the same God and he has the same concern for ordinary us that he did for a king.
How do we pray, then, to this God? The 20 yr. old Solomon shows us how - with thankfulness and humility asking for the things which will make us good servants. May we be open to his example and have the confidence to talk to God anytime, all the time. After all, with prayer, roaming charges do not apply.
In the Name...