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It's Not about Rules, Ritual, or Religion, Part 1

Would you like to know God like a close personal friend? Chip begins this series by explaining how it's possible for you to have a deep and intimate relationship with God.

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Transcript

There is something that all people, of all time, at every culture and in every generation have in common. Think of that. This something is found in the most sophisticated of cultures around the world. And yet you go into the most primitive tribe, you’ll find it there too.

It transcends all languages, all people groups, in all time periods. It is the most universal thread that connects all men and all women of all time. What is it? It’s the quest for meaning and purpose beyond our material existence.

You do any archeological dig, you discover any time period, anywhere in the world and you will find people groups of multiple languages and backgrounds, they will have one thing in common. There will be some form, some system, some attempt to say, “What is the meaning and purpose of life beyond this material existence?”

It’s the spirit of man that searches for contact and relationship with its Creator. It’s that desire in the human heart, it’s the painting of Michelangelo, of the finger of God and the finger of man coming close to touch. In the soul of every human being, in the spirit of each man and each woman that’s ever born is this desire to touch God, to know Him, to have something where there is a contact that says, “You matter. You’re important. There’s more to life than just this.”

In the words of Pascal it’s that God shaped vacuum inside every heart that is never filled until it’s filled with a relationship with God.

In the words of Augustine it was the restlessness of every single heart of every man, of every woman, of all time that never finds peace and never finds rest, in Augustine’s words, “Until we find our rest,” as he said, “in Thee.”

In the search for intimacy with the Almighty people have taken about three primary roads. They travel down the same three paths to seek, to touch God, to know God.

And the roads are rules, and then a way to say, “If I do this, and I keep these rules, maybe I can please Him.”  Or in most cultures in the world, “If I could keep these rules, maybe I can prevent His wrath from destroying me.”

A second road traveled is not rules but the making of rituals. And rituals are traditions or patterns that we seek to somehow bridge the mystery between the known and the unknown.

To answer the questions of immortality and so we light candles, and we bow, and we pray certain times in certain days, and wear certain clothes.

And the final road is not just rules or rituals but religion. They’re manmade systems of belief to explain the unexplainable. Ways to, for men and women over time and ages in a multitude of ways to say, “Life can make sense and immortality and life after death and why I’m here,” and we develop systems of religion or thought that say, “This explains it.”

And inside these rules and rituals and religions that have, for centuries and centuries and centuries, comes Jesus. And Jesus makes the ridiculous claim, ridiculous claim, think of it when He said it, “I have come to explain the Father.” Jesus would say, “If you have seen Me you have seen the Father.”

He would say, the writer of John would say that God incarnate came in the flesh and He has explained Him. Jesus would say if you want to understand what God is like, if you want to touch Him, if you want contact, if you want to understand all the mysteries of immortality and purpose and meaning, and be connected to God, Jesus said, “I am the way, I am the truth, and the life.”

And then He proves it with miracles, and He taught like no one else, and He raised people from the dead. And all of history hinges on this time before Christ and this time of His death and His resurrection.

And it’s interesting to hear what Jesus says about rules and ritual and religion. Notice He says in Luke 11:39, “You Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and the dish but inside you’re full of greed and wickedness.” Translation: It’s not about rules. It’s not about external rules and keeping rules. It’s not about performance.

Notice what Jesus says in Mark 7:13. He says to them, “Thus you nullify the Word of God by your traditions that you have handed down and you do many such things.”

Translation: It’s not about ritual. It’s not about tradition. It’s not about how many times you pray, what direction you pray, how many candles you light, what kind of robes you wear, what days you do certain things. Rituals have no power to build a relationship with God.

Jesus goes on to say in Luke 16:15, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of men but God knows your hearts. What is highly valued among men is detestable in the sight of God.” Translation: It’s not about religion, it’s not about external forms, it’s not about systems of dos and don’ts and belief systems. It’s about issues of the heart, it’s about being seen by God and being right with God.

As men go to seek God and touch Him notice what Jesus says in Matthew 6:5. He says, “And when you pray don’t be like the hypocrites for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on street corners,” why? “to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.” Translation: When you seek to touch God, warning, motive is paramount.

Religion and rules and ritual are almost always twisted in ways to serve people, to put people in positions of power and some are in and some are out, and rules and rituals and religion are used to exalt men and impress people, and they are fruitless in the real knowledge of God.

Finally, Jesus says in Matthew 6, “And when you pray don’t keep on babbling like the pagans for they think or they believe that they’ll be heard because of their many words.” Warning number two: Human performance is a vain attempt to touch the Creator.

Jesus would say communion with God is not about rules, communion with God is not about rituals, communion with God is not about manmade religions. So then the question is, Jesus, how do we commune with God? How do you touch the invisible? How do you know your Creator? How can you know and be known and this mystery of life, and life after death and, “Why am I here?” and “What’s my purpose?” and “How can I touch God?” Jesus, please explain. And so Jesus does.

He made outrageous claims and the people that were closest to Him could spot anything that was false, His disciples. They ate with Him, they traveled with Him. Early in the morning, late at night. They saw Him under pressure, they saw Him when He was tired. They watched Him speak, they watched Him pray, they watched Him do miracles but there was something that He did that attracted them more than all else.

It’s when He communed with the Father. When He modeled for them how they indeed could touch God. And so notice in Luke chapter 11 after observing Jesus’ deep communion with the Father, the disciples make a request. Notice how it opens up.

“On one day,” verse 1, “Jesus was praying in a certain place.” You get the idea that He’s praying, and the disciples are close enough to hear, and it’s almost as if they’re here, and they’re waiting, and He’s praying. And they’ve watched this happen multitudes of times. There’s times where they said, “Go ahead,” and He went up to pray. There’s times when they’ve prayed, as a regular practice, in the garden. There’s other times when He said, “You two, you come with Me and we’ll pray.” There’s times when they went in a room, and He would pray, and do a miracle.

This time He’s praying, and as He’s praying the disciples are watching, and they can ask Him anything. But there’s something about the way He talks with the Father. There’s something about the reality of His relationship that He’s modeling, that causes a request to be formed in their mind and their heart.

And as He was praying, when He was finished one of the disciples said to Him, “Lord, teach us to pray just as John taught his disciples to pray.”

“You have something. We see it. It’s authentic. It’s real. There’s power. There’s presence. There’s a reality. You don’t have the outward forms. You break all the rules. But You’re in touch with God. All the things we’ve dreamed, and heard of, and wanted to see. There’s an attraction about You, there’s an authenticity about You, there’s a purity about You, there’s a power about You and it doesn’t come from You. You have this practice of talking with God in such a way, we want to know. John the Baptist, he has a formula he taught his disciples. When we were young boys, we grew up, and the rabbi, every rabbi had a formula, he taught his special prayers to his disciples. We want to know what to pray.”

They’re not asking, “Teach us to pray in general.” They’re not saying, “We want to learn about prayer.” They’re literally saying, “Teach us what to say. We want to pray prayers like You pray. John has a formula, the Pharisees have a formula, we want one.”

In verses 2 to 4 Jesus condescends to their request and He is going to provide them with an approved pattern. There is a system, there are formulas, there are things that should be prayed and are more important, and notice Jesus gives it to them.

“And He said to them, ‘When you pray, say:’” He’s not just giving a general thought about prayer. He’s saying, “When you come before God, one thing that you can actually say when you come before God is this:” and He’s going to teach them some very important, not only theology but some truth about God.

He says, “Pray this: Father, hollowed be Your name. Your kingdom come. Give us this day our daily bread, forgive our sins for we are also forgiving everyone who sins against us. And lead us not into temptation.”

The first word would have startled them. The word for Father is “Abba.” It’s in Aramaic. It’s what small, little children say as a term of affection and request to ask one of their parents a question, or to be picked up as a small child and be brought into his arms.

The Jews by this time have a very transcendent view of God. He’s Almighty, He’s powerful. They have multiple rules and all these things that you can and cannot do. They have a written tradition and an oral tradition. And men are overwhelmed with the load and the pains of the Law.

Jesus would say, “You put heavy weights on men, you’re blind guides.” They’re filled with religion, they’re filled with ritual, they’re filled with rules but there’s no reality.

And Jesus cuts through it and says, “The very first thing you say: Abba.” You come to God as a Father. He’s accessible, He’s personal, He’s warm, He’s available, He loves you.

And then as you go through the prayer, He says, “Recognize His holiness and His reverence.” And then pray first about God’s agenda and then pray specifically about your needs and then make sure you address the issues of forgiveness not only what you need from God but what you’re giving to others. And finally, pray for spiritual protection.

The purpose of this message is not to do an exposition of the Lord’s Prayer, as it’s called. But what I want you to see is that He gives them an approved pattern. He says, “This is a good pattern to pray.” And it begins with their view of who He is.

But notice, after He gives them the approved pattern, there’s a question behind the question. When they said, “Teach us what to say when we pray,” it was more than that. It was, “We want to be connected to God the Father the way that you’re connected to God the Father. And so we want to,” they thought it was a formula. “Give us a formula.”

So He says, “Okay, you need a formula? Here’s a formula.” But then He’s going to say, but the question behind the question is you really want to know how to touch the Invisible. The real question is, “How do you touch the heart of God?”

The real question is, “What’s the ancient path where you can come before God and experience God the Father the way I experience God the Father?”

And so to do that He not only gives them a formula but He now gives them the secret to communion with the Father that transcends any pattern, or any form, and He gives them what I would like to call an astounding parable.

Notice what picks up in verse 5, “Then He said to them, ‘Okay, I’ve given you the pattern,’ then he said to them,” notice the first word, “suppose.” It’s hypothetical. He’s making it up. He says, “Suppose one of you has a friend and he goes to him at midnight and says, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread because a friend of mine is on a journey, has come to me and I have nothing to set before him.’”

Would you circle the phrase, “I have nothing,” we’ll come back to it later. “‘I have nothing to set before him.’ Then the one inside answers, ‘Don’t bother me, the door is already locked, my children are in bed with me, I can’t get up, and I can’t give you anything.’ And Jesus says, ‘I tell you, though he will not get up and give him the bread because he is a friend yet because of the man’s boldness,’” put a little box around the word “boldness,” “‘he will get up and give him as much as he needs.’”

If you’re in the King James Version it says, “persistence” or “perseverance,” doesn’t it? The word here for “boldness,” or “persistence,” or “perseverance,” the word can mean either one. The literal meaning of that word is “without shame.” Coming before someone without shame.

And so Jesus says, “Okay, I gave you the formula now let’s dig deeper. Suppose one of you has a friend.” And, by the way, you have to get into the culture, otherwise it makes no sense.

Most of us are thinking, “You know, someone stops over at eleven thirty at night and I don’t have any food in the house, you know, big deal, I say, let’s go to bed and we’ll get breakfast tomorrow at Denny’s. You know, don’t worry about it.”

But in this culture, hospitality is at premium. It is an utter disgrace, it is shameful to not be able to offer a guest, someone traveling, food and shelter.  It is an absolute disgrace, so this is a big problem.

In our modern ears it doesn’t seem like a big deal. In that day, this is a big problem. So much so that he would go to a friend. But the question is what kind of friend could you go to at midnight.

I mean you’re not going to knock on a neighbor’s door that you don’t have much of a relationship with. I mean, it’s kind of like the people in your life and mine, there’s not many houses where I can go over to someone’s house, walk over to the refrigerator without asking them, open the door, look inside, say, “You know what? I think I’d like a glass of orange juice.” Get myself an orange juice and say, “Boy, you know, I’m kind of hungry too.” You know what? Here’s the cupboard, here’s the crackers, put them on a plate, and come in and sit down on the living room and say, “Hey, how’s it going?”

How many people are in your world that you can do that with? Not too many. But what does it tell you about the relationship when you have people where you can go in their refrigerator? It means that there’s an openness, there’s a friendship, there’s an accessibility.

And what Jesus is saying is, the only kind of person you would ever go to their house, is where there was a level of accessibility and the level of friendship because you would never knock on the door at midnight of someone you didn’t really know.

This is someone you’re expecting to come through for you. And He basically says, you know, they’re not going to come through for you because they’re your friend. They’re going to come through because you came without shame. You said the relationship matters so much I wouldn’t come, or I wouldn’t call.

Anybody here received a call about two in the morning of someone who has a flat tire or has an emergency and says, “Can you help me?” And they think you’re a lot closer friends than you think you are with them. Have you ever had this happen to you?

But you, it’s real sincere on the other end of the phone. And you feel this weird twinge and the weird twinge is, “It is two o’clock in the morning and I do not want to be getting a wrecker for you, I want to be back in bed.” But the other part of the twinge is, “You know something? I felt pretty good about this person but I had no idea, the fact that they would feel this free to call me means I must have a very special relationship with them that they would feel that sense of freedom or lack of shame or boldness.”

And Jesus is going to make the point that this friend is going to respond not just because you’re a friend but he’s going to respond because you viewed him and the relationship with the kind of esteem that you would come without shame.

Jesus now moves on, He’s going to say there’s a point to this parable. And what He’s going to say now is He’s going to summarize the message of the parable and the message of this parable in verses 9 and 10 is very unusual.

He’s going to say, “God is not like that, by His command.” He’s giving an, often in Jewish teaching you want to make a truth and so you have a negative example, and this is a negative example in the parable.

And then He’s going to give a positive example, and then He’s going to end with a principle.

But what He’s going to say here is there’s a reluctant friend who doesn’t really want to get up out of bed. But even a reluctant friend for something real serious like hospitality will get out of bed, not because of your friendship but why?

Because you come without shame, you so esteem him of the kind of person that he is and the relationship that you have.

And now Jesus is going to use a positive example and His point is going to be: God never sleeps, God is not like the reluctant friend. In fact, God is exceedingly ready and desires to bless. That’s a negative example and kind of the a priori logic, if you will, that if a friend who is reluctant and really wouldn’t want to get up, will actually do it when you come boldly, how much more then would a God who loves you and cares for you, who never sleeps, is not only not reluctant but exceedingly ready, on the edge of His chair, longing to bless His children.

Then notice what He says in verse 9 and 10, “So I say to you,” command, “ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened. For everyone who asks receives and he who seeks finds and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.”

See, it’s the application of the positive teaching. Jesus’ logic very simply is if a reluctant friend will respond to your admission of desperation and need for help, because you boldly asked for help, how much more will your heavenly Father, who loves you and longs to help you, respond favorably when you boldly ask and seek and knock?

In fact, the negative example leads to Him making the same point through a very positive example and now notice, verse 11 through 13, He reveals what I’d like to call the Ancient Path of Communion with God through this one enduring principle.

He gave the negative one now He says to them, “Okay, which one of you, if your son asked for a fish will give him a snake instead?” And the grammar here is very clear. The answer, the assumption is no one. I mean no dad in his right mind, if your boy comes to you and says, “Hey, could I have some fish?” And you say, “Bah, here’s a snake.” No.

Or He plays it out again. “Or if he asked for an egg will he give him a scorpion?” Assumed answer - absolutely not. “If then you,” notice the logic, He’s building His case, the pattern, the parable, the application, second parable, principle. “If then you, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him?”

See Jesus’ point is the path of deep communion with the Father is not about performance, it’s not about keeping rules.  It’s not about saying the right words at the right time with the right emphasis, “Oh God…” It’s not having all your life completely in order so that you’ve never messed up and, “Oh, have I measured up, God? Have I measured up? Will You answer my prayer now?”

It’s not about approaching a God that if you get the right words, at the right time, and say it just right, and you’ve kept all the rules, and done all the rituals, that maybe, just maybe, you can twist the arm of God - because He really doesn’t want to bless you, He really doesn’t want to - if you do everything just right, you could twist the arm of God, and He’ll give you what you want.

See, that was the thinking of the day. Candidly, that’s the thinking of most of us. See, most of us, when we think about communion with God we think, you know what? How long are you supposed to pray? What kind of words are you supposed to say? Should you quote verses when you pray or not quote verses when you pray? Where should you pray? Does God listen more if you’re flat on your face or if you’re on your knees or sitting?

Is it okay to pray with your eyes open? Can I pray in the car? Can I pray when I walk? What’s exactly the right way to pray? Now, if I write down the prayers does that give them more power?

And we have a million ways to talk about, “I want to be close to God. Well, I guess I need to do this. If I mess up I guess I need to do these two things to make up for it. I need to tell Him I’m really sorry. I’ve got to figure out a way to try and get God on my team. If only God would bless me. If only God would help me. I know He helps other people that are more holy, and more kind, and more caring, and more loving, and more pure than me, but how could I get God to get on my team?” That’s the attitude.

And what Jesus is teaching is that it’s not the right words or spiritual techniques or rituals. It’s not about twisting God’s arm, it’s not praying for long periods of time. It’s not living a perfect life. It’s about understanding who God really is.