Sunday, September 25, 2016

Prayer 101: Sermon on the Lord's Prayer

When we left the Sermon on the Mount last week, Jesus gave us two key instructions on prayer. First of all, prayer isn't meant to be a performance; don't do it like the hypocrites do, to be seen by others (Matthew 6:5-6). And second, prayer isn't meant to be a tiresome and laborious search for the perfect words to please God, like the pagan Gentiles tried (Matthew 6:7). So Jesus teaches us here a short prayer with tight lines – in Greek, fifty-seven; in English, fifty-two; in Latin, forty-nine; in Syriac, closest to the original Aramaic, just thirty-five words in all (Matthew 6:9-13).

And how does Jesus begin this model prayer? How does he teach us to address God? As Master? As Lord? As King? No – as Father (Matthew 6:9). That's it, that one word. Not a long string of titles, like in Greek and Roman prayers, trying to impress and flatter their gods by heaping up eloquent and creative things to call them. Jesus doesn't even require us to use the standard Jewish benediction: “O Lord our God, King of the Universe.” He just tells us to address God as 'Father.' He wasn't the only Jew who did, of course. We have other writings that pray to God as “O Lord, my Father and Master of my life” (Sirach 23:1) or simply pray, “You are my Father” (Sirach 51:10). And to call God 'Father' ties together the images of Creator, Lord, and Redeemer. Because a father, ideally, is a source of life, a provider, a protector.

Israel already knew that God was their Father. He'd said so in the eleventh chapter of Hosea. And there, God portrays Israel as a child and talks about raising him from infancy. “When Israel was a child, I loved him … It was I who taught Ephraim to walk; I took them up by their arms, but they didn't know that I'd healed them. I led them with cords of kindness, with the bands of love … I bent down to them and fed them” (Hosea 11:1-4). Can you picture that – the image there – of God bending low and spoonfeeding his people like a squirming infant? God goes on to talk about Israel's rebellion, what a wicked child Israel has become, and how he needs to discipline them... but when God thinks of giving them up, “my heart recoils within me; my heart grows warm and tender; I will not execute my burning anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not a man, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath” (Hosea 11:8-9).

That's what Jesus means when he invites us to think of God as a Father. Tender. Loving. Teaching. Personally involved. Providing for us in our helplessness. Loving us even in our rebellion. Ready to discipline, but readier still to embrace. Committed to our good. That's the kind of father God is. And Jesus was known for calling God Abba – not just 'Father,' but Abba, an incredibly intimate and affectionate word – in some countries, still to this day the first word a child might learn. That just heightens the tenderness of this prayer. There's no great distance, no estrangement – just us and our Abba Father. 

That's what we get to call God – which is utterly amazing, when you think about it, isn't it? The hypocrites Jesus lambasts in his sermon turned family time into an occasion to show themselves off – and for those of you here who are fathers, wouldn't that be such a strange thing, to see your kids boast of how fancy they can be in talking to you? And the pagans kept worrying that if they didn't get the words just right, they wouldn't get access; that their gods wouldn't hear them. 

Sometimes we have the same fears. But we aren't supposed to. Jesus is telling us to set all that aside – throw our fears, our anxieties to the wind – stop fretting and just come close to God! When you think of God mainly as King, as Master, well, yeah, it's easy to doubt what right you have to approach him. But when the king is your dad, that's a different story, isn't it? The king's little ones can totter into his room at 3 AM to ask for a cup of water. Jesus invites us to approach God like that. “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:8).

But Jesus doesn't stop with just having us call God 'Father.' In this prayer, we address God as “Our Father.” And that's something interesting. This isn't a prayer for just anybody. Because, except in a more distant and much more metaphorical sense, most people in the world don't have God as their Father. In the Old Testament, it was the people of Israel to whom God presented himself as a Father. And in the New Testament, the more intimate Fatherhood of God is available to the disciples – the New Israel Jesus is bringing to birth. 

God isn't just Jesus' Abba now, but our Abba, because we live in him, in Christ; we're grafted into his relationship with his Father; our names are scribbled on Christ's birth certificate. To experience and know God as Father is to be united with the God's Son and filled with his Holy Spirit of Sonship, “by whom we cry, 'Abba! Father!'” (Romans 8:23). 

The Lord's Prayer isn't for occasional admirers of a generic god. And the Lord's Prayer isn't for “religious” people. The Lord's Prayer is the prayer of the church of Jesus Christ on the journey of discipleship. The Lord's Prayer is the thunderous heartbeat of those who race in the Spirit toward perfect love, to which the Law and the Prophets aim. The Lord's Prayer is a prayer for disciples, because only through Jesus can we truly have God for a Father.

But in praying to God as “our Father,” and not “my Father,” we make this a special prayer. This is not a self-centered prayer. This is not an egotistical prayer. This is not an individualist prayer. This is not an isolated prayer. Christian prayer can't be, because full Christian prayer is always prayer to 'our Father.' Christian prayer is the prayer of the church together, the prayer of the church in fellowship. When we pray the Lord's Prayer, we pray it as one family – and not just us here in this sanctuary. We pray it with all the people of God – past, present, and future. 

When we pray the Lord's Prayer and say 'our' and 'us,' we're including Christian men and women in a Kenyan village; we're including believers languishing under persecution in the Middle East; we're including monks on Mount Athos in Greece, we're including house-churches in China, we're including American believers sued for their livelihoods because they obeyed their Christian conscience, we're including believing Presbyterians and Lutherans and Methodists and Roman Catholics and Baptists here and all over. And when they all pray the Lord's Prayer, they're including us!

And if we could see that more clearly, the fundamental unity of the body of Christ, all our silly feuds would drop. When you pray a Christian prayer, when you pray the Lord's Prayer, you cannot pray alone. Not only do you have Jesus praying for you in heaven and the Spirit praying for you in the deep recesses of your very soul, but you are praying for all believers – and they, whether they think of it or not, are praying for you. 

So if you've ever wished you were better at praying, if you've ever felt inadequate or isolated in your prayer life, if you've ever wondered how your prayers can stand on their own two feet – they've never had to. That's the power of a prayer to “our Father.”

And then Jesus goes on and gives us another word: he invites us to pray to “Our Father in heaven.” Because as close and as intimate as we get to God, we can't forget that there's more to the story. Remember last week's Sunday School lesson? This Father of ours is the very same God who “sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, … who stretches out the heavens like a curtain and spreads them like a tent to dwell in; … who brings out the [starry] host by number, calling them all by name. … The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth” (Isaiah 40:22, 26, 28).

Our Father is still the King of the Universe, still the Maker and Sustainer of heaven and earth, still the Owner of the cattle on a thousand hills, still the Consuming Fire to whom the oceans roar and mountains bow. Our Father cannot be reduced to our level, cannot be comprehended, cannot be demystified or demythologized or deciphered or domesticated. He cannot be boxed up or contained, and he most certainly cannot be figured out or familiarized. As vast as the outermost stretches of the universe are distant from the face of the earth, that's how vastly higher are his ways than our ways and his thoughts than our thoughts (Isaiah 55:8-9). That is who our Father is. He's not our Father next door. He's “our Father, which art in heaven.” And that calls for faith.

After we've anchored our prayer in those truths, Jesus gives us two sets of three requests. And in the first set, you will not find the words 'me' or 'mine,' or even 'our' or 'us.' We start off the prayer with three petitions that are entirely about God. Who do we pray for first? God himself. God is the top priority in prayer. And we lead off with the first request: “Hallowed be thy name” – or, in modern language, “May your name be sanctified.” That is a very Jewish prayer – the whole Lord's Prayer is very Jewish as a whole in its themes and style, but without anything that would make Gentile members of Jesus' New Israel feel like outsiders. And we can tell how Jewish this line is, because the earliest form of a key Jewish prayer called the Kaddish went like this:

May his great name be exalted and sanctified, in the world which he created according to his will! May he establish his kingdom during your lifetime and during your days, and during the lifetimes of all the House of Israel, speedily and very soon! And say, Amen.

The three God-focused requests in the Lord's Prayer – sanctifying God's name, establishing God's kingdom, and even God's will – are all there. And to sanctify God's name means to treat his name and reputation as special, as important; it means to act in a way that glorifies him. The rabbis said that one might sanctify God's name by being kind to unbelievers, or by suffering for his sake, or by obeying his commandments and doing good works. And that matches with what Jesus already said: that our good works should shine before others to lead them to glorify our Father in heaven (Matthew 5:16). That's what we want to see.

Jesus is probably thinking about the Book of Ezekiel right now. Ezekiel was told to “prophesy to the mountains of Israel” (Ezekiel 36:1), to tell them that their misbehavior not only sent them into exile, but – even worse – “profaned my holy name” in front of the nations. “But I had concern for my holy name, which the house of Israel had profaned among the nations to which they came” (Ezekiel 36:20-21). God promised to act in a way that would “vindicate the holiness of my great name” (Ezekiel 36:23), and that was by gathering the exiles, sprinkling them clean, giving them a new heart, and putting his Spirit within them – in short, by giving them, giving us, the new covenant (Ezekiel 36:24-28). Even dry bones can live again, when the Spirit is present (Ezekiel 37:1-14). 

And when the end comes, which Ezekiel describes as a battle with Gog of Magog, God promises to finally defeat evil – “So I will show my greatness and my holiness and make myself known in the eyes of many nations; then they will know that I am the LORD (Ezekiel 38:23). That's what it looks like for God's name to be hallowed – and that's what we want to see, what we want the world to see! We know that Jesus prayed, “Father, glorify your name.” And what answer thundered from heaven? “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again” (John 12:28). Hallelujah!

Where does the Lord's Prayer go from there? “May your kingdom come” (Matthew 6:10). That's a little bit unusual, because Jews usually talked about the kingdom being revealed or being established, not coming. But they spoke about God coming to them. And Jesus is combining the two, because in Jesus, God and the kingdom arrived together; and through us, God's presence is further unfolding and the kingdom is being further revealed; and we pray for the day when Jesus will return, and we behold the Father, and the kingdom is set up in full. Of course, this means we have to admit that utopia, a perfect world, isn't something we can engineer or invent or just naturally evolve into. No project, no politician, no simple answer will give it to us; only the gospel of the kingdom holds out that hope, that promise.

And the third request isn't so different: “May your will be done” (Matthew 6:10). These are the same words Jesus uses in the Garden of Gethsemane, when he puts the Father's plan to save us over his healthy human instinct for self-preservation: “Not my will, but may your will be done” (Matthew 26:42). Put together, these lines deal with the question: What do you, what do we, want most for the world? And the right answer is: for everything to be put right, for everything to be fixed and made whole. We want to see God visibly running things and all creation cooperating. And that's already started in Jesus' ministry, and it's ongoing somehow through the church's mission, but we're longing for God to get exactly what God wants, for God to be obviously and effectually the King of the Universe.

In other words, we want God to be clearly on earth what heaven already sees – “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). That's a daring prayer, because only a kingdom-ready people can pray it with a full heart. Only the people we see in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12). Only the people whose “righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees” can “enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20ff.). That's discipleship – getting readier and readier. And so the disciple church dares to pray for God's name to be sanctified, for God's kingdom to come, for God's will to be done. All of those things are the best blessing we can pray for creation.

That's the model for Christian prayer. We don't come to God with all our impressive wordiness and flattery; we don't come to God hesitantly or fearfully; we come to God together, as one body of Christ living by the Spirit of Christ, and name him as our Father, without forgetting his heavenly greatness. And the first thing on our new heart is him: his glory, his holiness, his rule, his will – because that's the only way for creation to run right, for all the evil of fallen human history to come undone, and for our deepest longings and creation's direst groanings to be answered. And then, only then, do we turn to ourselves in a second set of three requests.

And how do we start? “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11). Not, “We can make our own daily bread, thank you very much.” Not, “Give us this day a lifetime supply of bread.” And not, “Give us this day our daily filet mignon.” We're asking for what's actually essential, what we actually need – not all the luxuries we might dream of. We can live without daily filet mignon, but not without daily bread – that's the basics, the stuff of life. Like Paul said, “We brought nothing into the world, and we can't take anything out of the world; but if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content” (1 Timothy 6:7-8).

That's all we're asking: the basic necessities of life, freeing us up from day-to-day anxieties so we can keep living for God's glory. And when we get it, we disavow credit – it's first and foremost a gift of God, not the work of our hands or the purchase of our wallets. In asking for our daily bread, we're depending on God to provide what we need, when we need it, while we need it, just like God gave manna to Israel day by day in the desert (Exodus 16:4).

It's easy for us here in America to pray this line flippantly. Most of us have never had to worry about our daily bread; we've never been food insecure. But many people in Jesus' crowd that day were subsistence farmers, who really wondered whether they'd have something to eat tomorrow. My dad's mom's four grandparents were all immigrants – they came from German colonies along the Volga River in Russia; and they left because they knew the Russians would treat them badly. And as the decades passed, those left behind finally faced genocide under Josef Stalin – they fought to the death over single kernels of wheat, and many were taken into the labor camps. And one of their poets responded with this prayer of despair:

Our Father – are you still in heaven? Then listen how your name is abused as a curse, how your will is spurned in Stalin's hell on earth. The tyrant and his henchmen have power over life and death; and they take from us our daily bread and let us die like dogs from hunger.

Even to this day, food insecurity is a reality for most of the world. And when we pray the Lord's Prayer, we're not just praying for ourselves; we're praying for our brothers and sisters who are literally starving, and for our own real needs, too, for life and ministry. We're praying for an end to scarcity, not through the heaps of plenty we've stacked high here in America, but through God's simple daily provision – maybe even his provision through us, if we dare to think about it.

After we've prayed for our basic needs, Jesus invites us to pray for forgiveness. “Forgive us our debts,” he says (Matthew 6:12). Those listening to him were mostly Galilean peasants, farmers, workers – they knew what it meant to live in constant fear of debt. That's why so many of Jesus' parables are built around the theme of debt. And the Aramaic word for 'debt' and 'sin' is one and the same. We have a moral 'debt' to God – and we confess here in this prayer that we have plenty of them. All of us do. We are in debt up to our eyeballs, falling hopelessly behind. But God's Law offered the Jubilee cancellation of debts, and that's what we so desperately need! We need God to cancel out our debts, to forgive us! We don't just need to live; we need to live free.

We know that Jesus came to provide it; not only did he sign our debts to himself and pay them on the cross, but he sparked the eternal jubilee by his resurrection. There's forgiveness and grace abounding so much farther than we ever could have dreamed! But Jesus invites us to pray, “Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). He comments, “If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will forgive you; but if you don't forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14-15). 

Strictly speaking, that's not a condition; but Jesus does teach us that forgiveness is the fruit of a forgiven life. And if we aren't filled with a Spirit of forgiveness, that might be a sign that we haven't found it ourselves. We all remember, maybe, Jesus' parable of the ungrateful servant – forgiven a massive debt, but refusing to forgive a small debt to a fellow-servant, so his master reinstates the massive debt and throws him into debtor's prison (Matthew 18:21-35)? Don't be like that. That's why we commit ourselves here to being people of forgiveness, as a sign of how much our Father has forgiven us. We pledge to God that we will release everyone from being indebted to us.

And finally, the last of the three petitions, in two parts: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” (Matthew 6:13). The first part echoes another Jewish prayer from the rabbis: “Do not bring me into sin, or into iniquity, or into temptation, or into contempt” (b. Berakhot 60b); and the second reminds us of the Dead Sea Scrolls, with the prayer, “Do not let Satan rule over me” (11QPsa 19.15; 4QTLevi 21.17).

Put together, it's a very realistic prayer! The word for 'temptation' is the same word for 'tribulation' or 'trial.' In this world, we are going to face that – a lot. We will find ourselves in situations where Satan aims to entice us to avoid suffering or gain pleasure by straying away from faithfulness to God. When the crucifixion was just around the bend, Jesus warned his disciples to be careful, or else they'd fall into that temptation (Matthew 26:41). 

So here we ask God to protect us through this perilous life, to keep us from falling victim to Satan's clutches and lures, from giving in and going astray. We ask God to prepare us, equip us, and lead us safely through, so that evil doesn't dig its hooks and snares into us. And that's the third most important thing we can pray for ourselves: we need to live through God's provision, we need to live free through God's mercy, and we need to live right through God's protection and guidance.

That's where Matthew's text ends. In a Jewish prayer, after the set points had been covered, it was customary for people to then add on any remaining personal requests they had. And so may we. Once we've realized who God is to us, once we've focused our prayers on him and what's good for the world, and once we've covered the three most foundational needs we have, then God invites us to bring to him whatever else is on our heart, what specifically concerns us. And the Lord's Prayer will keep it in its place. Once we've set our hearts on God's kingdom, bowed to his will, and given thought to what we really need, then we'll see where our priorities should be. And like God's dear children, we can safely blurt out what's left.

And finally, Jewish prayers typically ended with some kind of doxology – a final set of praises. A few copies of Matthew's Gospel – not the oldest ones, but a few of them – include the doxology we know the early Christians used at the end of the Lord's Prayer: “For yours is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever, Amen” (cf. Didache 8:2). And wherever this started, it's a short version of David's great doxology from 1 Chronicles that goes like this:

Blessed are you, O LORD, the God of Israel our father, forever and ever. Yours, O LORD, is the greatness and the power and the victory and the majesty, for all that is in the heavens and in the earth is yours. Yours is the kingdom, O LORD, and you are exalted as head above all. Both riches and honor come from you, and you rule over all. In your hand are power and might, and in your hand it is to make great and to give strength to all. And now we thank you, our God, and praise your glorious name. (1 Chronicles 29:10-13)

Ain't that the truth! And all that gets condensed down to just a couple words – but just the right words. Friends, this is prayer like Jesus teaches us. It's simple, it's short, it's sweet, it anchors us in who God is to us and who we are to each other, and it brings us together to focus on God, the world, and our needs before we get to our wants and close with a glorious bang. What more could you ask for? Pray with confidence. Pray with passion. Pray like this, with the Lord's Prayer as the model for what Christian prayer is at heart, and watch what God will do. May our whole lives be like the Lord's Prayer. Amen. Amen.

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