Teach Us to Pray

by Elaine Maust
The Lord’s Prayer
Matthew 6: 5-13
February 24, 2008

Introduction

The text for our sermon today is Matthew 6:5-13. The Lord’s Prayer. But before we get into the praying part, here’s something I hope you keep in mind. As we go through this Red Letter Edition series, I invite you to imagine that Jesus is talking to us, to you. That, as in our text today, another part of the Sermon on the Mount, you are sitting there on the mountain side and he is looking out over the crowd and sees you. Let Jesus speak the words of each sermon in our Lent series into your heart. These are not just words in a book. This really happened. Jesus was a real person and he spoke these words out of his mouth. People who were there heard what he said and wrote these words down for us. Jesus’ words are the words of eternal life. Now they are Jesus’ personal words for each of our hearts. With all of this in mind, let’s see what Jesus has to say about prayer.

A companion to the Matthew text is Luke 11:1-13. Joel referred to this passage in the children’s story. One of the disciples saw Jesus praying and asked to be taught to pray.

Why did the disciples feel the need to be taught to pray? At that time prayer was part of the Jewish culture. There three regular times of prayer each day. Much like Muslims still do today, at a certain time of the day, no matter where one was, everyone stopped to pray. Workers stopped working. Teachers stopped teaching. The religious leaders prayed. In the Old Testament there is a rich and beautiful prayer tradition. So why did the disciples think they needed to learn to pray. Was there something about Jesus’ prayers that attracted them? Were they really saying in Luke 11, “teach us to pray like you do”?

No showing off – Matthew 6:5-6

Jesus begins by telling the disciples, the others listening on the mountain and us two things we should not do. As if to say, “Okay, you want to learn to pray? Great. Then let’s start with what you will not do! Don’t pray with yourself and to others. No show off praying.”

It seems that some of the religious folks prayed to get attention. Jesus calls them hypocrites, actors. Folks looking for an audience. These folks would time the hours of prayer so that they would be sure to be in public when the time for prayer arrived. I wonder if some of these folks were in the crowd that day on the mountain? Think they might have been just a touch uneasy?

The hypocrites loved to be seen by others. Jesus doesn’t say they loved to pray, but they loved to be noticed. Ouch. Jesus says they got what they were after. They got noticed. That’s the answer to their prayer, their reward.

So what do we hope for when we pray? What is the reward we are looking for? Instead of making a show of our prayers, Jesus gives instruction to pray secretly. To go into a closet and shut the door.

Now you may be thinking, “There is no closet in my house big enough or empty enough to get into.” But this is not technically about closet space, is it? And it is not even about quiet and solitude, though those are important circumstances for praying. It is about being alone with God in my heart. And after all, hearts can be crowded places too.

Where does this happen for you, this being alone with God in your heart? How does it happen? Driving in the car? Sitting here in a worship service? Taking a walk? As you are falling asleep at night? When are you alone in your heart with God.

I remember one busy day when I realized I had not turned my attention to God once. It was the middle of the afternoon. Now that is not so surprising, is it? I have lots of things to do in a day, lots of things that need my attention. So do you. But you want to know why this shook me? I had prayed three times that day already. Lord have mercy!

May any public praying I do blossom from the deep roots of a life of private intimacy with God. May my public prayers be as unselfconscious as if it is just me and God and not another soul.

Whether we are in a crowd or all by ourselves, it is the moment when we turn our attention to God and speak personally that Jesus refers to. That secret moment with God. That is praying. Jesus said, “and your father who sees in secret shall reward you openly.”

No Blabbing – Matthew 6:7-8

I suppose there are a lot more things Jesus might tell us not to do when we pray. Seems like he’s just limiting himself to these two. And here is the second one. Don’t just keep yammering on when you pray. (Matthew 6:7-8)

Have you ever listened to someone pray and wished you had a machete? Not to hurt them of course, but to whack through the words in an attempt to find the prayer. Maybe you have felt like that sometimes when I’ve prayed. I suppose those of us who love beautifully chosen words are particularly susceptible to this faulty prayer style.

This praying business is no magic trick with a complicated incantation. Praying is just talking to God.

“Don’t be like that,” Jesus says as he describes the heathen who go on and on. “Please” I wonder if sometimes God would just like a break from us. Like the father of a whiney child, God would just like us to be still for a minute. Do you suppose? Jesus says that going on and on and on is not going to make us be heard any more than the simple attention that I mentioned earlier. “God knows what we need,” Jesus reminds us.

I imagine God like a mother who in preparation for a morning of running errands, has packed a snack for her toddler. No sooner than they have gotten strapped into the seat and started the car, the child starts begging for something to eat. The mother is already prepared. She says, “All you have to do is ask me.” God says, “All you have to do is ask me.” Jesus teaches loving confidence in prayer. And here’s an even more revolutionary thought. If God knows what I need before I ask for it and if I have a history of being sometimes (okay, often) misguided about what I need.

Maybe sometimes instead of telling God what I need when I pray, I might try asking God what I need.

Do it like this – Matthew 6:9a

Are you ready? Pay attention. Lean forward in your seat. Jesus says, “This is how to pray.”

Our Father

This prayer, also called the Disciples Prayer, is a group prayer. God is the Father of all of us sitting here. And every person in every church in this town. And every person… well, you take it on from there.

So even when I am praying alone, I am praying as part of the human race of God seekers. Prayer is personal but it is never private, even when we are praying alone we share company with all others who call out to God.

Jesus teaches us to say, “Our Father.” Rowan Williams writes, “The cry to God as Father in the New Testament is not a calm acknowledgement of a universal truth about God’s abstract fatherhood. It is the child’s cry out of a nightmare.”

In fact, this word Jesus uses when he prays, “Father” is really “Abba,” or “Papa” or “Daddy.” Arthur Paul Boers writes that it would never have occurred to anyone at that time to call God, “daddy.” It would have been thought disrespectable. But not only does Jesus address his prayers to his daddy, he invites us to as well. And maybe some of the rest of you are like me. Maybe it is easier to conjure the kind of intimacy Jesus invites by thinking of a grandparent (or some other relationship) instead of a father. Twenty years ago, I had a dream in which God was represented by my Grandpa Perry who picked me up and held me his lap. Who is the person and what is the relationship that calls to mind this kind of love?

Our Father,
Who art in heaven

Despite the initial intimacy of the address, “Our Father,” it is clear immediately that God is not diminished. God is “in heaven.” As if when I pray to this God who loves me most and best, least I get carried away, I do well to remember God is in heaven and I am on earth. This prayer of mine is not a conversation between equals. I am praying to the creator and director of the universe whose address is Box 1 Heaven. I, on the other hand, live in Lost Gap. It would be a good thing for me to keep this in mind as I pray.

Hallowed be thy name

When I pray these words, I respect God’s name. Remember the third commandment, “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain”? Jesus seems to remember this commandment as he teaches this prayer. Yesterday I heard a line from the song, Praise you in the Storm, with fresh ears. “You are who you are.” I believe that is another way to say, “Hallowed be thy name.”

It is a way to say, “I respect who you are, God. I will not just dash off your name onto my requests and call it praying.” I will not do or ask for ridiculous or selfish things and then stamp God’s name on them. God’s name is sacred.

Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come

When we pray this, we are saying, “Lord may your program, your way of doing things come on. May you be completely free to do what you imagine.” Thy will be done Remember what Jesus prayed the night before he was arrested? Remember his famous prayer in Gethsemane? He prayed, “Not my will but thine be done.” I suppose this is the hardest prayer to pray, don’t you? Because I want done what I want. Jesus teaches us to instead think of what God wants and ask that it happen.

In her novels about the life of an Episcopal Priest, Father Tim, Jan Karron often refers to “the prayer that never fails.” As he counsels folks or finds himself in impossible situations, Father Tim invites people to pray “the prayer that never fails.”: “not my will but thine be done.”

This also reminds me of Mary’s prayer when the angel came to her with the news that she would be the mother of the Christ. “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.” (Luke 1:38) “Thy will be done.”

Here’s another way to pray. Simply say the manes of those on your heart and then say, “thy will be done.” Like this, “My mother Lord, thy will be done.” “My teacher Lord, thy will be done.”

On earth as it is in heaven.

When we pray these phrases, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven, we are asking that God be completely free. As free as in heaven to do whatever is best in my life and in the lives of all I love and in Kenya and in Iraq and in the presidential election in the US. You get the idea.

Are you getting the feeling that the Lord’s Prayer is a very humble prayer? I sure am! Instead of me rattling off a list of what God needs to get busy doing for me, I am bowing my head to say, “you do what you please.”

Give us this day

With this phrase the focus of the prayer changes from God to us. We have been acknowledging who God is and our cooperation with what God wants to do. Now we are honest about what we need.

This day. As I have confessed, one of my persistent sins is worry. As Duane preached recently in a sermon, worry is based in the future and the past. This prayer focuses on today.

Give us this day
our daily bread.

Lord, please give us what we need for today.

So, what do you need today? I mean if we would take our God wish lists out and whittle them down to what we need for today, what would they be?

For about 20 years, Duane and I ran a direct market strawberry farm. During those days, I had acres of worries. God gave me a simple prayer that I prayed constantly throughout the day. I can still picture myself taking wide steps in the rain over those rows of rotting berries praying this prayer…

“What I need today,
The Lord has given
For what you’ve given today,
Lord, I give thanks.”

I am touched again by the simplicity of the Lord’s prayer. We are asking for our most basic most simple needs. If praying is new for you, good news! The prayer Jesus teaches is not elaborate or difficult. Just give me what I need today.

And forgive us our debts
As we forgive our debtors

The next two phrases go together. Forgive us as we forgive. Now why did Jesus have to go and complicate a perfectly good prayer with forgiving? We were doing fine up to this point, weren’t we? This is strong language to be prayed only be the brave. Forgive me Lord in the way I forgive others.

I know I need to ask for forgiveness, but Jesus is saying that when I open the door marked forgiveness for my sins, I discover that it is the same door is also marked forgiving those who’ve sinned against me.

The word “debts” in this prayer is sometimes said, “trespass or sin.” One time when Duane and I were working with pastors from some of the downtown Meridian churches on a joint service there was a discussion about how this phrase would be spoken as we all prayed together. “Debts,” said our friend the Presbyterian pastor. He quickly explained that Presbyterians are much more comfortable with the idea that they have debts than that they have sins. The good Presbyterians are not alone, are they?

Eddie Broadhead, in his book on the Sermon on the Mount, Demand and Grace, cautions against thinking that Jesus is setting up some sort of formula prayer. Instead he writes, “This is not a mathematical equation as in 7 forgivenesses equal 7 forgivings. But those who have experienced forgiveness will forgive and those who expect to be forgiven better.”

Jason Martin, in his book on the Sermon on the Mount writes, “It is extraordinarily difficult for us to accept the fact that our relationship with God and our relationships with each other are inextricably bound together.” As I have said before, prayer or religion is always personal but it is never private. Remember the beatitudes? “blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy”

When we pray “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors…” we are standing knee deep in the stream of mercy. Mercy is flowing toward us and away from us.

And lead us not into temptation
But deliver us from evil.

I have said that this prayer was written for parents of teenagers. Lead them not into temptation and deliver them from evil. But it was written for us all. Because we all face temptations and evil.

In some translations this phrase reads, “Do not bring us to the time of trial” or “do not bring us to the test.” I especially like the way Richard Gardner translates it in the Believer’s Commentary, “Do not bring us into situations that might overwhelm our faith, but rather deliver us from every peril that awaits us.”

For thine is the kingdom

If you are following along in your Bibles you will notice that the Matthew text does not include this benediction that we typically end the prayer with. I’ve included it since it is commonly used.

By the way, what does Jesus go back to at the end of the prayer? (v14-15) It is the only commentary on any phrase of this prayer. He goes back over the forgiving part. Another indication of how well he knows us.

But back to the benediction….

It returns to the kingdom, God’s reign, God’s program. Thine, yours, is the kingdom. It belongs to God. As I’ve been saying in the Sunday School openings this month, this church belongs to God, not to us. But it is even grander than that! Our prayer says, The entire collective universe of your movement in the world belongs to you, Oh God.

Thine is the Kingdom,
And the power

You have to power to do whatever you please God. A good reminder at the end of our prayer. God can do whatever he pleases! God can give us daily bread, protect us from temptation and evil. Thine is the power!

And the glory

One of these days Jesus will get all the credit coming to him. Phil. says that “at the name of Jesus, every knee should bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil. 2:10-11). Someday this will happen. In the meantime, brothers and sisters, we will give God credit at every opportunity! Thine is the glory.

For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory
Forever

Our simple prayers are a dot in the scope of eternity. The God we trust and praise will go on long after I pray my last prayer. Could be a frightening thought, I suppose, but it could comfort us. God’s kingdom and power and glory are more dependable than anything I know. The prayer of St. Teresa includes a line I say every day, “Though all things change, God does not change.”

One thing we can count on if everything else changes on us. God is forever.

For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever
Amen.


Leave a Reply