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Luke 18: 18-27; December 3, 2017
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
THOSE who believe that Jesus, our Lord and Master, is also the Word of God and Second Person of the Holy Trinity, can’t help but approach Him with a certain sense of fear and awe. We don’t speak to Him in a common, pedestrian way. We don’t pray to Him using language like He’s our “good buddy.” Our Orthodox Church teaches us to pray using elevated language, precise, God-pleasing vocabulary, offered with an extremely humble demeanor. Last night, at Vespers, we heard these words extolling the virtues of the Prophet Zephaniah: “we honour thee for having the eloquence of God, being honourable and pleasing to Him.”  Eloquence. This is how the holy Fathers wrote the prayers in the Prayer Book. This is how the saints composed the Divine Services. This is how David, the prophet and King, wrote the Psalter. We speak to the Saviour as the God Who created us, as the God Who is everywhere present and filling all things, as the Lord and God Who “searches every heart and understands every desire and every thought” (1 Chronicles 28:9). But in general, in first century Palestine, the religious and political leaders were not inclined to regard Jesus as anything at all. They did not see God when they looked at Him. They didn’t even see a holy man. St. Cyril of Alexandria says, “for they, with their princes and teachers were in error, and saw not with the eyes of their mind the glory of Christ. Rather they looked upon Him as one like unto us: as a mere man” (Sermon CXXII on Luke). That was certainly the case with the rich ruler of the synagogue whom we encounter in today’s Gospel. How does he address Jesus? Does he address Him with eloquence? Does he address Him with lofty words, honorable and pleasing to God? Not at all! He calls Him “good teacher.” Not “rabbi,” not “Master.” Just “good teacher.” Good grief, even the “good teachers” of today would rather be thought of or spoken of as “educators” not merely “teachers.”
The object of the rich religious leader this morning was to trip-up Jesus in His words. I want us, this morning, to think about our words, to think about the words of our prayer – the way we pray, and the way that we think about our Lord Jesus Christ when we pray.
First of all, let me say that prayer is vital to our life in Christ. St. Theophan the Recluse says: “There is nothing more important than prayer; therefore, our greatest attention and most diligent attention must attend it.” All of us should learn to pray and continue to pray using three primary texts: 1.) The “Our Father” 2.) The Jesus Prayer or Prayer of the Heart, and 3.) The Prayer Book. The Lord Himself taught us the first two. And the Holy Church, the Body of Christ, the God-pleasing and Spirit-filled Saints, have given us the third. These are our primers, our lessons in prayer. No one can be a disciple of Christ, a student of Christ, without first learning these basic lessons. They teach us everything about Who Christ is and who we are. They teach us the language, the vocabulary of piety. They instruct us in the path to the acquisition of the virtues. They are the fundamental building-blocks of the spiritual life and the practice living theology. We must use them. We must be taught by them, moulded by them, perfected by them.
And part two of my little instruction about how we speak to Jesus, how we should pray, is about our hearts. If our hearts are not connected to the words of our prayers, then we can also be sure that we are not connected to God at all. Remember the story of the Publican and the Pharisee? The broken-hearted prayer of the Publican went straight up to God, while the arrogant prayer of the Pharisee clanked right back down on his own head! Why? Because the Pharisee “prayed with himself” which means he said the words, but he wasn’t really talking to God (see Luke 18:11).  His heart was not in his prayer. Again, St. Theophan says: “Always strive to pray...so that prayer comes from the heart and is not just thought by the mind and chattered by the tongue.” And St. John of Kronstadt wrote: “The chief thing in prayer is the nearness of the heart to God.”
Real prayer must be connected prayer. Simply reading or reciting something religious isn’t prayer. Again, St Theophan tells us: “(True) prayer is the piercing of our hearts by pious feelings towards God, one after another – feelings of humility, submission, gratitude, doxology, forgiveness, heart-felt prostrations, brokenness, conformity to the will of God, etc. All of our effort should be directed so that during our prayers, these feelings (and feelings like them) should fill our souls, so that the heart would not be empty when the lips are reading the prayers, or when the ears hear and the body bows in prostrations, but that there would be some qualitative feeling, some striving toward God. When these feelings are present, our praying is prayer, and when they are absent, it is not yet prayer.”
St. Gregory of Nyssa speaks of prayer as a sense of presence. It is an awareness of the presence of God. Prayer is the experience of God in me and me in God. It’s not something that I do, but an experience of God that I enter into. The late and ever-memorable Metropolitan Anthony Bloom once wrote that “Prayer is the search for God, an encounter with God, and going beyond this - an encounter in communion. Thus it is an activity, a state and also a situation; a situation both with respect to God and to the created world. Prayer is born of the discovery that the world has depths--that we are not only surrounded by visible things but that we are also immersed in and penetrated by invisible things. And this invisible world is both the presence of God, the supreme, sublime reality, and our own deepest truth."
Dear ones, let us love God, honour God, and show our faith in God by the way that we pray and by the frequency of our prayer. Let us strive to make sure that every word of our prayer comes from the heart, and isn’t simply a mental exercise or a duty to be completed. When we pray, let’s endeavour to actually be in the presence of God, believing that He is really listening. To Him who gladdens kings, prophets and priests, Who created His own Mother, Who summoned Magi from the East, Who appointed an angel to shine as a bright guiding Star,  Christ our true God, be all glory, honour and worship, always now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.