Model for Prayer
A sermon preached by Eleanor Childs on 28 July 2019
I imagine all of us are familiar with our gospel passage, the Lord’s Prayer. Many of you, like me, will have grown up repeating it in your private prayers, in church or in school assemblies, or public meetings, . We can all say it, but can we really pray it? For praying is not saying words. Over the years I’ve rattled off the Lord’s prayer countless times , without thinking about what I’m saying. It took me a long time to realise that was not prayer. The king in Hamlet recognises he is not getting through to God when he says,
My words fly up, my thoughts remain below; Words without thoughts never to heaven go.’
The power of the Lord’s prayer is not in the words, they are not some magical incantation. It is the thoughts and attitude behind them that make them into powerful prayer. For the Lord’s prayer is a pattern for his disciples on how to approach God.
Jesus gave this pattern to his disciples in response to their request, ‘Lord, teach us to pray.’ He had just finished praying when they asked him this.[It’s interesting that it’s the only request for teaching by the disciples that we have on record. They’d observed Jesus healing people, working miracles, casting out demons, teaching the crowds but they didn’t ask for lessons on these things. They didn’t say.’ Teach us how to heal or work miracles, teach us how to cast how demons, give us a course on theology or strategic planning for bringing in the kingdom.’ No,’ Teach us to pray. ‘]
They had observed Jesus at prayer. It was a priority in his life and he always made space for it in his busy life, even staying up all night after an exhausting day’s ministry, frequently going off on his own before dawn to spend time with God. They saw that prayer was the centre-point of his life; they recognised that his work was rooted in his prayer life; and he delighted in time spent in His father’s presence.
There are 2 versions of the Lord’s Prayer, one in Matthew and one in Luke. Matthew’s is slightly fuller and is the one we have all learned, but they are basically the same. I have to say I am indebted to John Mark Comer for his podcast on prayer.
For many of us, and I include myself in this, prayer can often be a shopping list of the things we want God to do for us or the people we care about. Now of course there is a place for our personal concerns but it’s not the place to start. In the framework Jesus has given us, there are things we need to know or become aware of or remind ourselves of before we start asking for our needs.
And the first one is that God is our Father. Jesus was rooted in the Father’s love, and he wants us to be. Now I know this constitutes a problem for people who have had abusive or absent or distant fathers. The word is contaminated for them and the image they have of God as Father is a total turn-off. And for all of us the image we have of God affects our relationship with him. If we see him as a severe judge, a distant boss or an energy force in the universe, we are never going to want to pray. So ask yourself what is your image of God. If the word ‘Father’ is negative or blocks you, because of your experience of an earthly father, read Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son, in Luke 15, which is a picture of the fatherhood of God. The father gives the son his freedom, though the lad chooses sex and drugs and wild living, yet the father never gives up on him but yearns for him and watches and waits for him and runs to welcome him back into the family. That’s the kind of loving, forgiving, welcoming Father we have, who is devoted to us and longs to bless us.
Matthew’s version of the Lord’s prayer has ‘Our Father in heaven’. ‘Heaven’ is an unfortunate translation, for heaven is somewhere many people think is far-off, accessed only after death, but commentators tell us the word in Greek is plural and means ‘the heavens’ , or ‘the air’ or ‘atmosphere’ around us. God is close, all around us, in the air we breathe. John Mark Comer says the feeling of separation from God that may people have is a mental illusion created by distracted and disordered lives. Our Father is as close as the atmosphere around us, though we can’t see or hear that either, but we’d soon notice if it wasn’t there. Those are the first and second things we need to know – God is our loving Father and he is close to us.
The next thing we need to be aware of and to pray is, ‘ Hallowed be your Name.’ ‘Hallow’ is to set apart as holy and to greatly honour. God is holy. ‘Holy’ is another word with bad vibes for a lot of people, but ‘holy’ simply means ‘set apart’ special, unique, above all. And Comer points out it doesn’t have just a moral sense ie purity and righteousness, but an aesthetic sense. God is beautiful. I remember the first time I grasped this truth years ago. There were about 25 of us singing worship songs in a vicarage lounge and I was suddenly awestruck at the sense of the beauty of God. I’d been a Christian for ages, but I’d never realised that God is beautiful. But it shouldn’t be a surprise, should it, for we know that the fruit of God’s Spirit is ‘love, joy, peace etc’ and God is full of this. But before God can speak to us and we can hear him we must have proper reverence and respect for His name. He is Sovereign Lord of the universe, and He is a God of love and justice and peace. Names are very important in the Bible. because the name tells us something about the person’s character. Thus God’s ‘name’ means His nature revealed.’ The name ‘Jesus’ means ‘the Lord saves’. One commentator says ‘Hallowed be your name’ really means, ‘may you reveal yourself to me, O God.’
So, God is our loving Father, he is close. We want his character to be revealed to us and to the world and his name to be honoured. What is next in the structure and priority of our prayers? ‘Your kingdom come, Your will be done’. Jesus came announcing the availability of the kingdom of God to all, through him. The long-expected, divine turning point in history is here and now, manifested in his person and ministry. His miracles are proof of the coming of the Kingdom through Him. Salvation, forgiveness and life in all its fullness is available through him to all who wish to receive it. A new era has begun. His followers are to share in the proclamation and demonstration of the reality of that kingdom and to pray for it.
And in God’s kingdom, of course, God’s will is done. The problem I have come up against in praying this sincerely is that many times I want my kingdom to come and my will to be done – with God’s help of course. How do I get round this common problem? I think this is where the structure and order of our Lord’s prayer is so important and so helpful. It’s only when I have a real awareness that God is my loving Father, close and present, and I have opened myself to him to reveal his holiness and beauty to me, that I can begin to pray this sincerely. If I begin prayer with my shopping list of needs and wants, they will take centre stage and my focus will be on them and not on God’s agenda.
Also, I think we have a lot of distorted or mistaken ideas about God’s will to jettison. What do you think of when you hear the phrase ‘God’s will.’? So often it is used in the context of suffering or when people are trying to come to terms with a tragedy. Some people think the will of God is always to make life hard for us. Before we can pray truthfully for God’s will to be done, we have to be convinced that it is the best and happiest way for us. St Paul refers to God’s will as ‘good, pleasing and perfect’, which is why he was committed to it with all his heart. I think it was Dante who said, ‘His will is our peace.’ It doesn’t mean we won’t have hardship, because life is hard, but we know that in all things, as St Paul said, God works for the good of those who love him.
So the first part of the Lord’s prayer is orienting us towards God. In the second half we bring our needs and wants to God. The first request we are to bring is close to our hearts. We have no difficulty with it. ‘Give us this day our daily bread.‘ Whatever we need to survive. God understands our humanity. He is our Father. He knows we need to buy food, pay the mortgage, meet bills, buy presents for the children. And He has promised to provide for us. Matt.6:33 He tells his hearers not to worry about food and clothing. He says, ‘Your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness and all these things will be given to you as well.’ This request expresses our dependence on God for all we need. And it is for today. Tomorrow we will ask and trust God for tomorrow. Stockpiling only happens when there is fear of scarcity.
So our first personal request is for our physical, material needs. Our second request is for our relational, spiritual needs. And this is the one that Jesus turns the spotlight on. ‘Forgive us our sins for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.’ In Matthew’s version of the prayer, Jesus especially emphasises this by adding’ For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, you Father will not forgive your sins.’ Why is this so important? In a sinful world where we constantly rub up against, hurt or offend one another, forgiveness is a necessity for things to work. It is also necessary for our peace of mind. Unforgiveness is a deadly cancer in the system, and blocks our receiving God’s forgiveness and healing.
Our last petition is ‘Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.’ If the request for our daily bread is about our present needs, and the request for forgiveness deals with what is past, this request is about the future. What do you fear most? Sickness, poverty, unpopularity, ending up in a care home, death? This request shows that the one thing we should fear is that we fall into temptation which is an inducement to evil. Often we are foolishly confident in our ability to resist temptation, as St Peter was. In his letter he says, ‘Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour.‘ There are all kinds of temptations around us – to lie, to cheat, to use people for our own advancement; there are temptations to laziness, unbelief, greed, fear bitterness, self-pity. We need to pray for alertness and God’s strength to resist them. These are the things in the future we really need to fear for they poison our lives and our relationships with God and one another .
I have found it incredibly enriching studying our Lord’s prayer this week and I commend it to you, not just to say it, but to pray it regularly. If this seems onerous remember that the point of any discipline or practice is to lead to pleasure and delight- ask any musician or sportsperson or professional. I know someone in our congregation who has tried this practice and found it very rewarding. So let’s take the Lord’s prayer as the God-given pattern for all our praying and move along the path from practice to pleasure and from discipline to delight in our Father’s presence.