We woke this morning flung forward an hour. Time literally sped up! Such is the pace of spring! Yesterday there were but a handful of buds on my trees, this morning, after a warm and sunny day, the tree is covered in new life. What was dormant for the last several months is not just reawaken but actually wholly new. There is something in the air that quickens life this time of year; both plant life and our life of faith. That something is prayer.
Prayer may seem like a basic subject for the religious, and indeed it is. Prayer, our language of conversation with God and for others, is our most fundamental means for living faith. Yet, it is a language we must learn. And who better to learn it from that Jesus?!
This month we will be learning to pray as we pray with Jesus through three of his prayers. The hope is that as,
We keep conversational company with Jesus as he prays. We get used to the ways he prays so that we can become as honest in our needs, as attentive to the presence of God, as responsive to the Spirit, as wide ranging as Jesus in his participation, and our participation with him, in all the operations of the Trinity.
So, let’s begin!
One author tells this story,
After the fall of the Soviet Union I was privileged to lecture in Riga for the Latvian Lutheran Church. Most of the participants in the seminar were between the ages of 25-35. This meant that all of their education had been in the communist state system, which was determined to indoctrinate them in atheism. I asked one of the young women about how she came to faith.
‘Was there a church in your village?’ I asked.
‘No, the communists closed all of them,’ she replied.
‘Did some saintly grandmother instruct you in the ways of God?’
‘No. All the members of my family were atheists.’
‘Did you have secret home Bible studies, or was there an underground church in your area?’
‘No, none of that’ came the answer.
‘So, what happened?’
She told me the following story:
‘At funerals we were allowed to recite the Lord’s Prayer. As a young child I heard those strange words and had no idea who we were talking to, what the words meant, where they came from or why we were reciting them. When freedom came at last, I had the opportunity to search for their meaning. When you are in total darkness, the tiniest point of light is very bright. For me the Lord’s Prayer was the point of light. By the time I found its meaning I was a Christian.’
The Lord’s Prayer, according to another author, is perhaps “the single set of words spoken more often than any other in the history of the world.” Consisting of a mere 66 words in our English bibles, this tiniest point of light has illuminated the hearts and minds of men and women for millennia. Let’s read it together from Matthew’s gospel, chapter 6, verses 9 to 13,
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever. Amen
Matthew gives us this all too familiar prayer in the middle of Jesus’ most comprehensive sermon on kingdom life. What life in the kingdom of God consists of in actions, in attitudes, in thoughts and beliefs. Immediately prior to teaching us to pray, Jesus warns how not to pray. Read with me Matthew 6:5-8,
And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
Prayer is the core of Sermon on the Mount teaching. It is located at almost the exact center of the Sermon (Matt. 6:9-13). It holds the Sermon together and animates it. A kingdom-of-heaven life consists of things to do and ways to think, but if there is no prayer at the center nothing lives. Prayer is the heart that pumps blood into all the words and acts. Prayer is not just one more thing in an inventory of elements that make up following-Jesus, kingdom-of-heaven life. Prayer is the heart. If there is no heart doing its work from the center, no matter how precise the words, no matter how perfectly formed the actions, there is only a corpse. It may be a very lovely corpse. The embalmer’s art, especially when the embalmer knows his or her Bible, works wonders with appearances. But dead is dead.
“A kingdom-of-heaven life consists of things to do and ways to think, but if there is no prayer at the center nothing lives”, so Jesus says “Pray then like this”, and then prays with us.
The first line of the prayer is simple enough, “Our Father in heaven”. Yet Jesus does three things here in this brief phrase (perhaps this is where Paul learned his brevity!). The first we do not notice in our translation, but the scholarly consensus is that the prayer “…begins with the Aramaic word abba…” Why is that important? Aramaic was the language of daily communication. It was not sacred; rather, it was ordinary, common language. “The Aramaic-speaking Jew in the first century was accustomed to recite his prayers in Hebrew, not Aramaic.” In the tongue of the sacred texts, thus Judaism (like Islam) had a sacred language; yet, Jesus was teaching his disciples that no language nor culture would be sacred; thus opening up the Word of God to every tribe, tongue and nation. Simple words, and a dramatic change in religion.
In turn, the very word “Abba” or “Father” was a profound shift in the reference to God. We take God as Father for granted today since God is referred to as Father some 165 plus times in the Gospels alone! Yet, we forgot that in the Old Testament God is only referred to as “Father” fifteen times, with the imagery implied in just a small hand full of others. He is more often likened to a father not given the title of Father. However, Jesus is showing us that kingdom-of-heaven life, following-Jesus life, is one in which our relation to God is one of intimacy and awe; nearness and reverence. In the word “Abba”, Jesus makes it clear that God cannot be “conceived as an idea or a force or a higher power…’Father’ as a metaphor names a person, not an object. Father and son and daughter are not functions. They are unique blood relationships.” In turn, the word “Abba” carries “an element of awe and respect and reverence. I don’t cease to be a child in the presence of my father. Otherness is not diminished by affection. Intimacy does not preclude reverence.” Jesus’ “…title for God was Abba…This extraordinary title affirmed both a personal relationship and the deference that would be offered to a superior.”
Lastly, Jesus teaches us to pray by praying with us. “Our”, that’s you and me and Jesus. He intercedes on our behalf, as we reflected on earlier in Hebrews 7. He also prays these six following petitions alongside us as we pray them with one another.
1. Hallowed be YOUR name
2. YOUR kingdom come
3. YOUR will be done
- on earth as it is in heaven.
4. Give US this day our bread without ceasing.
5. Forgive US our debts, as WE also forgive our debtors.
6. Lead US not into temptation, but deliver US from the evil one.
Three petitions that recognize what God is doing and reorients us into participants in God’s work. Three petitions that recognize what God gives and what we need to live faithfully (to his glory).
Jesus is praying with us in this prayer and saying, “This kingdom that you have been hearing about now for these many centuries is here. Listen to me carefully. Watch me attentively. Join me believingly. I am here to do kingdom work, and I want you to join me in the work. I want you to work alongside me.” Eugene Peterson makes a profound statement about prayer that the Lord’s Prayer confirms, “When we pray we are deliberately involving ourselves in a reality that is comprehensively created by and under the care of God.” Prayer is powerful!
Kenneth Bailey, a Middle Eastern scholar, remarks that “Each of these six petitions involves an act of God, and each specifies or implies participation on the part of the believer. That is, each involves the sovereignty of God and the freedom and responsibility of the human person.” Thus you could rephrase the six petitions this way:
1. God makes his name holy,
And I am expected to live in a way that affirms his holiness.
2. God brings in the kingdom,
And I am to participate in that kingdom with courage and humility.
3. God fulfills his will,
And I am to discover that will in the stories of Jesus and obey him in daily life.
4. He gives the gift of bread that does not run out,
And I must live without fear.
5. He forgives sin and debt,
And I must forgive offenses too.
6. He guides me away and delivers me from evil,
And I must choose to live truthfully (righteously, like Jesus).
Let me draw out two of these petitions quickly to show you the depth contained in them, even if just a little bit. Then we will do what Jesus taught us, pray like this!
The third petition is “YOUR will be done”.
The will of God is one of those tricky things, at least in our culture and age. Based on many conversations together, I know trying to figure out exactly what God wants for you or has planned for you consumes much of our religious zeal. There are certainly moments of clarity in the stories of Scripture. God showing up and making absolutely clear what someone is to do or not do. Yet, it is somewhat ironic, that in nearly all of those stories no one was seeking out God’s will, not in the ways we do anyway. They were living—some in reverence to God, others in opposition to God—and God showed up to redirect their path one way or another.
Jesus was intimately familiar with these stories, so I doubt he would be encouraging us to pray in a way that leads many into anxiousness and others into foolish stubbornness. Would he not rather teach us to pray in a way that reorients us into a trusting relationship? One pastor notes on the “will of God” that,
“Will has to do with intention, with purpose. Without a will, we live a meandering life. It also has do with energy. Without a will, we live a listless life.
When we speak of a person who lives with ‘a will’, we don’t normally imagine him or her carrying around a blueprint and only doing the things that are specified on the blueprint and then bullying ignorant or rebellious bystanders into compliance. And when we speak of a person who lives willingly, we don’t envision someone who does only what is already dictated by a job description. The word does not suggest either compliantly ‘going along’ or reluctantly submitting to coercion.
The biblical gospel objection to the ‘blueprint’ version of the will of God is that it depersonalizes what is fundamentally a personal relationship—‘our Father!’—into something cold and lifeless, without ambiguity, without conversation. ‘Blueprint’ versions of praying for the will of God are a mocking parody of prayer.
The mature, sane, enduring counsel of our best pastors and theologians is this: keep Jesus’ prayer, ‘Your will be done,’ in the storied and praying context of the Holy Scriptures. Quit speculating about the ‘will of God’ and simply do it…’Will of God’ is never a matter of conjecture. It directs a spotlight on believing obedience.”
The will of God is his good for all people and for his creation. His name being hallowed, his kingdom flourishing across the earth. Salvation and restoration.
Each morning I do not wake to a frantic search for today’s actions and attitudes; nor do I follow a well scripted plan for tomorrow’s aspirations, fearing any wrong step that would lead me off course or naively ambivalent to the newness of the day because of laser focus. No, I pray with Jesus, “YOUR will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”, knowing full well that “All the paths of the LORD are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his testimonies” (Ps. 25:10).
Relational obedience, that’s what keeps me aware and aligned in the will of the Lord that is being worked out in my life, in my neighbor’s and co-worker’s and spouse’s and kids’. The loving obedience that Jesus speaks of in John’s gospel which keeps us grafted to the vine, bearing fruit that abides.
You have what you need to live and to live well. Micah 6:8 hangs in our living room as a reminder,
“He has told you…what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
“Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
Let me mention briefly a few things about the fourth petition: “Give US this day our daily bread”. First, “bread” is a representative of all that one eats, everything one needs to survive. So we are not just praying for something trite like a snack, but the necessity of real, physical life; this very day.
Second, the word translated “daily” does not appear anywhere else in the Greek language. Looking at how the early church writers used the word (both in the East and the West), we can see that it was related to either time (bread today or tomorrow) or amount (just enough or all we need) or both. One commentator notes that one of the earliest translations uses an adjective that describes the bread as “lasting, never-ceasing, never-ending, or perpetual.” In other words, bread that will not end. This is not a request for abundance. After all, the prayer is “this day”, give us bread that will not end. So then, what is it a prayer for?
Perhaps, as Kenneth Bailey suggests, the prayer is “Deliver us, O Lord, from the fear of not having enough to eat. Give us bread for today and with it give us confidence that tomorrow we will have enough.” A prayer for real provision—and for fearlessness.
When we are not afraid of not having enough, of what is or could and might go wrong in a really broken world, then we can actually be ones who are aware of others and generous.
Mother Teresa recounts a story in which a family came to her in need of bread,
I will never forget the night an old gentleman came to our house and said that there was a family with eight children and they had not eaten, and could we do something for them. So I took some rice and went there. The mother took the rice from my hands, then she divided it into two and went out. I could see the faces of the children shining with hunger. When she came back I asked her where she had gone. She gave me a very simple answer: ‘They are hungry also.’ And ‘they’ were the family next door and she knew that they were hungry. I was not surprised she gave, but I was surprised she knew…I had not the courage to ask her how long her family hadn’t eaten, but I am sure it must have been a long time, and yet she knew—in her suffering…In her terrible bodily suffering she knew that next door they were hungry also.
Like each of the petitions, “our relationship with God and with our neighbors are closely tied.”
These comments on the third and fourth petitions are merely scratching the surface of the depth of this simple prayer. One that for many has been prayed over, in, through, and with for a lifetime. One pastor comments,
“The whole world is starving for spiritual experience, and Jesus gives us the means to it in a few words.”
Alexander Whyte says of the Lord’s Prayer, “The shortest memory may retain it, and the busiest life may utter it”. Might I encourage us to pray this prayer together with Jesus and one another for the rest of this month, starting today?
 Eugene Peterson, Tell It Slant: a conversation on the language of Jesus in his stories and prayers, 162.
 Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: cultural studies in the gospels, 93.
 Timothy Keller, Prayer: experiencing awe and intimacy with God, 109.
 Peterson, 168.
 Ibid, 167.
 Bailey, 95.
 Robert H. Stein, “Fatherhood of God”, in the Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, 247.
 Peterson, 169.
 Ibid, 172.
 Bailey, 102.
 Peterson, 174.
 Bailey, 105.
 Based on Bailey’s rephrasing, 105.
 Peterson, 179-180.
 Bailey, 119.
 ibid, 121.
 Mother Teresa, The Joy of Living, 337-338.
 Bailey, 124.
 Keller, 109.
 Quoted in Peterson, 195.