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Calling on the Name of the Lord: The Beginning of Prayer
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All blog posts originate from Pastor Bob's website, bobkaylor.com

GENESIS 4:25-26; ROMANS 8:18-27

What was the first prayer you ever prayed? For those of us who grew up in the church it might have been a table grace you used in your family (God is great, God is good…) or that nighttime prayer many of us were taught to say (“Now I lay me down to sleep…”)—nothing like beginning prayer with a potential nightmare! If you came to faith later in life, you might have prayed the sinner’s prayer or simply cried out with one of the three types of prayers that Anne Lamott talks about: “Help! Thanks! Or Wow!”


In many ways, our first prayers set the tone for the prayers we will pray later. We begin simply, even in a primitive way, but then as our relationship with God grows our prayers become more focused and rich. I think the same is true when we look at the history of prayer in the Bible—a history of prayer that should set the tone for the kinds of prayers and prayer lives God calls us to.


What’s the first prayer in the Bible? Some would say that it began with Adam and Eve in the Garden, talking and walking with God in the cool of the day. That’s a beautiful image, a face-to-face conversation, but the writer of Genesis doesn’t seem to equate that with prayer. After their relationship with God was broken by their idolatry and sin, however, the conversation and relationship between God and humans changes. In order for humans to be restored in that relationship, God had to set the agenda—an agenda we call covenant, or God’s promise to restore and reconcile sinful humanity and the creation that was broken as a result.




We get a hint of this covenant in Genesis 3:15. In the midst of the curses brought on by human sin, God speaks to the snake (who encouraged the humans toward their idolatry and sin) and tells him that one of the some of the woman’s offspring will one day “crush his head.” In other words, there is one coming who will eventually defeat the evil that plagued his human ancestors and restore God’s good creation. Who is this offspring? That’s the question that Genesis will begin to try and answer.


We learn that Adam and Eve’s first “offspring” aren’t going to be it. The righteous, God-fearing son, Abel, is murdered by his brother Cain who perpetuates evil rather than defeating it. So Adam and Eve have another son, Seth, who begets another son, Enosh. Are these the ones? Well, interestingly, this is the only time they are mentioned other than a later genealogy. We learn nothing about them and they do nothing significant other than exist as child and grandchild of Adam. Doesn’t seem like either one is going to be that promised offspring.


In fact, it begins to seem like it’s going to take a long time for that son to arrive; a long time to live in a world that is fallen, broken, and struggling. And it’s at this point that the writer of Genesis inserts this important phrase: “At that time, people began calling on the name of the Lord.”




What does “calling on the name of the Lord” mean? The Hebrew word for “call” (qr’) means to “cry out” or shout. And to whom are they shouting? They are shouting out to the Creator. In other words, what we have here is the first incidence of prayer in the Bible. The “name of the Lord” isn’t an incantation, as in the pagan religions, but rather refers to the nature of God as the Creator and the one who stays with his people and his creation in spite of their rebellion. The people call out to God to bring the fulfillment of his promise to send someone to crush the serpent’s head and liberate them from the evil in which they seem to be enslaved. The first prayer is thus a prayer asking God to do one thing—to come through on his promises.




Biblically speaking, then, the first prayers are all about covenant. Fast forward a bit to Genesis 12, where God calls Abram and makes a covenant with him. What is that covenant? It’s about land but also about offspring—God will make of Abram a great nation, but what is the purpose of the nation—blessing. Through you, through his nation, all the nations of the earth will be blessed. And the writer of Genesis tells us that in response Abram went where God told him to and, once he arrived (12:8) he built an altar and “called on the name of the Lord.” It was a way of praying, “OK, God, I’m here…now do what you promised.” It was a tall order because Abram and Sarai were old and she was barren. The only way this covenant promise was going to happen is if God did something about it…and God came through!


Their son, Isaac, whom we might think was the promised serpent crusher after all that waiting, actually just serves in the narrative long enough to have more offspring of his own. Isaac, however, continues his father’s way of legacy of prayer by building his own altar and “calling on the name of the Lord” (26:24).


Indeed, this is the thread that runs through the whole Old Testament—that prayer is connected to God’s promised plans for his people, to act in judgment and salvation. It’s about asking God to keep his promises to liberate them from slavery to sin and death and restore his good creation. It’s about counting on God to bless what he began.


We see this in numerous places throughout the Old Testament. Notice how many times that God is referred to as the “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob”—The God who keeps his covenant from generation to generation. The righteous leaders and prophets of Israel will invoke that promise over and over again, especially in times of trouble and distress.


When Elijah confronts the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel (one of the my favorite texts in the Bible) he does so with a bit of flair and a lot of prayer. He proposes a contest between the god Baal and the God of Israel—who will bring fire down on the right altar? Elijah is confident that his God, the one true God, will prevail, to the point at which he trash talks the prophets of Baal. And then it’s his turn. He has the altar soaked in water to make it even less like to fire, and then he prays:


“O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your word. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.” (I Kings 18:36-37).


And God delivers—not merely to show off his power, but to turn his people back to the covenant. “Calling on the name of the Lord” is not some vague term to cover all kinds of prayers, but it is always connected to God’s declared plans to rescue his people and act with judgment, righteousness, and salvation. We call on a God who keeps his promises.


In fact, it is this act of “calling on the name of the Lord” that marks people as belonging to God’s covenant community. The prophet Zechariah puts it this way (God is speaking): “They will call upon my name, and I will answer them. I will say, ‘They are my people’; and they will say, “The Lord is my God” (Zechariah 13:9). To be people of prayer, then, means that we are first people of the covenant or, to put it in the language of the New Testament, we are a people of the gospel.




After all, isn’t the gospel all about the promised offspring who will crush the serpent’s head? Jesus came from Abram’s family, from the line of Seth and Enosh, but moreover he was and is the Son of God. He is the one for whom people had been calling on the name of the Lord—the one who would defeat sin and death once and for all through his own death and resurrection. That is the good news—God has kept his promises by coming in person to fulfill them. And it is this reality that is the grounding and shape of prayer—it’s all about the gospel!


When we pray, all of this is the foundation. The primary trajectory of prayer is not praise, lament, or intercession on behalf of ourselves and others—those are important and we do pray in these ways—but all of those prayers are subsets of the larger purpose of prayer—to cry out to God to do what he has promised; to deal with the reality of sin and deliver us into his promised kingdom.


If we go back to the prayer Jesus taught his disciples, which we referenced last week, we see this as the foundation for every prayer. We hallow the Father’s name, we call upon him. We pray for his promised kingdom to come on earth as in heaven. We pray for daily bread because ultimately God is our provider. We pray for forgiveness of our sin because that is the only way we can be made whole. We pray for God to deliver us from temptation and evil, which God has promised to do and has done in Jesus Christ. We pray, in other words, for God to save us and our world, knowing that he has already begun to do so on a cross and in an empty tomb!


Jesus taught us to pray in this way because we still live in a fallen world, anticipating the world to come. Prayer is an interim practice while we wait for the kingdom; we ask God to do in us and through us what we cannot do ourselves, knowing that God will follow through.


It’s this kind of prayer to which God invites us. It’s prayer that begins with the gospel, recognizing what God has done, is doing, and will do in us and in the world. The apostle Paul talks about this kind of prayer in Romans 8. The whole creation waits, groans in anticipation, for the fulfillment of God’s promise, to be set free along with the children of God—free from sin and death. And we groan inwardly, knowing that we are not there yet, but even in the midst of our groaning God meets us there and his Spirit intercedes for us, prays for us. As Paul puts it: “Likewise, the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”


Real prayer begins when we recognize our weakness, and when we believe in the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ to transform and save us. A good prayer life is thus tied to good theology—to this good news. We “call on the name of the Lord” because we know our need and we know that God keeps his promises.


As I said last week, we often struggle with prayer because we don’t take the time to consider our deep need for God. We rush to prayer when we or someone we love is in trouble or there is a crisis to consider, but we rarely take the time to do some self-examination and to recognize our deepest need and God’s response to that need. We struggle with prayer because we hold God at a distance instead of receiving his invitation to draw close and call on his name. If we want to pray well, we have to first be vulnerable and let God into the deepest and even the darkest parts of our lives. When we open our lives to God in prayer, it is then we begin to see where God is at work and we can pray for others and for our world by drawing from the deep well of God’s covenant love and faithfulness for us.




How can we practice this? There are a number of ways to begin, but one of the most helpful I’ve found is a traditional Christian way of praying called The Examen. Credited to St. Ignatius of Loyola, the Examen is a prayer pattern that focuses on God’s presence in the real world and in our daily lives. It’s a way of approaching prayer with gratitude for God’s covenant faithfulness instead of guilt.


It is a prayer designed for the end of each day, and it begins with a moment of meditation on how God sees me—to remember that I am his, that he has called me, and invited me to this time of prayer. And then I begin the five steps or movements of the prayer:

  • Thanksgiving – I give thanks for God for the events of the day, places where I saw God at work, times when I experienced the reality of God’s love and faithfulness.
  • I then ask the Holy Spirit to bring light and illumine what God wants me to see, feel, or experience in this time together, remembering that the Spirit is ready to intercede for me even when I don’t know what to say.
  • Then I review the day and look at the thoughts, feelings or actions that led me closer to God or that led me away from God. This is a time for real honesty, and a time to consider my weakness and God’s strength.
  • I then ask God for forgiveness, knowing that this is a prayer God always honors as promised.
  • I then consider what I might do differently the next day to bring my life more in line with the good news of God’s kingdom.

Lastly, I give thanks for the grace God offers me—relying on the gospel promise that God has purposed me for his kingdom.


Try that every day for a week and you will experience a reshaping of your life around the gospel. Then you can “lay me down to sleep” knowing that you can rest in a God who keeps his promises!



Millar, Gary. Calling on the Name of the Lord: A Biblical Theology of Prayer

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