Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Lord's Prayer

This post is based on my sermon on the Lord's prayer from a couple weeks back - with links added for additional reading!
It seems like people in churches always have an opinion on the right way to worship God. Some people like praise songs. Others like traditional hymns. Others like old time gospel music. Some people prefer the classic written prayers of our faith, and could say them every day and feel close to God. Others like extemporaneous, spur of the moment prayers off the top of their heads. Some people feel closest to God in a group of people singing loudly. Others feel closest to God in silence alone. Each person has an idea of the best way to worship God.

There’s nothing wrong with any of these things, of course. But they are all just ways to get to the same thing – worshiping God. What really matters is whether worship gets you focused on worshiping God!

In our scripture today, the disciples were similarly concerned with the right way to worship. They said to Jesus, “Teach us to pray”. Maybe they wanted a special prayer that was somehow better than anything they had heard before. Maybe they wanted magic words that would make it so God would respond to their prayers. We don’t know what they wanted – we only know what Jesus gave them.

He gave them what we call the Lord’s prayer – a simple, straightforward prayer – nothing elaborate or magical. But through that prayer, really he was teaching them about the heart of prayer – accepting our need for God and God’s grace for us.

The Lord’s Prayer is such a common prayer that if you’ve spent much time around the church you probably know it by heart. So it can be a bit surprising to hear the shortened version from Luke’s gospel:

"Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.’" (Luke 11:2-4)

It leaves out some things we are used to hearing, and sounds very direct, very “short, sweet, and to the point”. But how is it an answer to the disciples’ asking Jesus to teach them to pray?

On one level, he was teaching them specific words to pray, similar to the daily Jewish prayers that they would have been familiar with. Then, and now, Jews have written prayers to say for specific occasions, and Jesus and his followers were Jewish. In a lot of ways, the Lord’s Prayer, the most famous Christian prayer, is a very Jewish prayer.

The Jewish teaching about prayer is that it must be from the heart in order to be a real offering of prayer. You have to pray with intention, or “kavanah” in Hebrew (go to this article for more on kavanah). It is the intention of seeking God that really matters in your prayers. How your prayer draws you closer to God is what matters, since after all it is God’s work, not ours, that makes our prayer effective.

That is no less true of Christian prayers. Let’s look a little closer at the Lord’s prayer and see what the meaning, the intention, is behind each of the lines. In other words, what might we be thinking as we pray the words of the prayer to make it a prayer of the heart, not just of our words.

The first word, "Father", is kind of an interesting way to start a prayer. Jesus called God “Father,” of course, but in this prayer he's teaching his disciples to call God “Father” as well. This tells us that we are in God’s family. As the gospel of John tells us, all who believe in Jesus are children of God. God looks after us like a loving father. Calling God by the family name “Father” demonstrates the close, intimate family relationship that we can have with God.

But then the prayer says “hallowed be your name”. Why doesn’t it just say something like “you are holy”? Instead, it says God’s name is holy. That was the way people in Jesus’ time talked about God. Out of respect for God, they didn’t refer to God directly. They especially didn’t speak God’s name, which is a very specific thing in Hebrew. Jews still don’t pronounce it out of reverence for God. It’s sometimes pronounced “Yahweh” or “Jehovah” in English but we don’t actually know how to pronounce it.

So you have this really intimate family word, “Father” and a lofty “Hallowed be thy name” in the same sentence. This reminds us that God is both so holy that we can’t pronounce God’s name, and yet so close to us that we can call God “Father.” God is always with us and cares for us each individually like a loving father, but is also the holy ruler of the universe.

So when we pray, we pray to a God who is all-powerful, but also loves each one of us. We pray to a God who is always with us and at the same time is greater than anything we can imagine. So the intention behind this first line is to draw close to God as a member of God’s family, while staying in awe of God’s greatness.

Next the prayer says: “your kingdom come”. I won’t go into the intricacies of talking about what the kingdom of God is. I’ll be preaching more about that next week. But basically, asking for the kingdom to come is like praying “God, whatever you want the world to be like, that is what I want it to be like. I don’t know what that looks, but I long for the day when your vision will be reality.”

This is both a prayer of hope for a future where all is right with God, and a prayer of hope that we can glimpse something of God’s kingdom and will in our daily lives. Jesus said, “the kingdom of God is at hand”, which means it is right here with us, but he also said that it is coming and is not yet here. The kingdom is both already here and still coming. We can see where God is already working in the world, but we recognize God’s will is not fully done. We long for a day when all the pain, war, oppression, violence, and injustice will be taken away.

The first part of the Lord’s prayer is about who God is and God’s will for the world. The rest of the prayer is about who we are in relation to God. Specifically, it is about recognizing our need before God and our dependence on God for everything.

We pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Besides maybe water, there is nothing we need more than food. It's a need that never goes away. You could feast at a banquet today, but if you don’t eat tomorrow you will still feel hungry! It's a daily need.

Yet most people in the United States don’t know what real hunger is. Most of the time here the problem is eating too much cheap and unhealthy food, rather than not having enough food. But in places where people don't have access to all the food we do, food really is a daily struggle. The idea of “daily bread” in Jesus’ prayer is more like that. Those of us who have never been hungry have to work hard to understand this, to imagine ourselves in the shoes of someone who doesn’t know where the next day’s food is coming from. A person who is hungry knows far more about what it is to trust God to provide basic needs than many of us do.

The prayer doesn’t say “give us our daily Big Mac” or “give us our daily Thanksgiving dinner”. It’s asking and trusting God to provide our basic needs. It’s a recognition that there might not be enough food for both today and tomorrow, so we must depend on God for each day’s food. It’s a reminder that we too are dependent on God for our food, and a reminder to share our food with those who are depending on God for their daily needs.

If you want to help, our church has a food pantry that gives food to local families in need.

The next line in the prayer still focuses on our dependence on God. It says “forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.”. We are dependent on God to forgive us our sins, since only God can forgive them. It also challenges us that we need to forgive others for what they have done against us. It actually seems to assume that we have forgiven them! For that too, we are dependent on God.

I don’t think it is natural for us to forgive each other. It’s a lot easier to bear a grudge. It takes faith in God to forgive someone else and really let them be forgiven. All grace and mercy ultimately comes from God. As we forgive others, so God will forgive us. God’s forgiveness of us and our forgiveness of others goes together. We need daily forgiveness along with our “daily bread”.

The last line, “do not bring us to the time of trial” sounds the most different from the familiar Lord’s Prayer, which says “temptations”. “Time of trial” is much broader than temptations. It includes all of the spiritual crises we face in life. All the times when our faith is tested. All the times we wonder where God is. All the times when things in life seem too much to bear. That is what we are asking God to deliver us from. When we pray this prayer we trust in God’s ability to deliver us and see us through all the “trials” of life.

In the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prayed that he not have to suffer death on the cross. As he experienced, sometimes the trials come even when we ask God to take them away. Sometimes being faithful to God actually brings us trials, as it did for Jesus. The fact is, we will have to go through trials, but God will still be there with us through it all even when it is too much for us to bear. As the song “Amazing Grace” says, “through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come. ‘Tis grace that brought me safe thus far and grace will lead me home.” God’s grace is enough to deliver us from the troubles that come.

Jesus’ instructions on prayer remind us of some important truths about how we should pray, and the kinds of things we should think about as we pray. When we pray, it's always important to remember that God is a mighty God who loves us and wants us as a part of God’s family. God is both awesomely holy and deeply compassionate. Because of this, we have hope for God’s kingdom, both among us now and in the future. We always hope that God will bring the kingdom of peace to our broken world.

We are dependent on God for our basic needs, our “daily bread”. We are dependent on God for grace and mercy, forgiveness for our sins. We are also dependent on God to deliver us from all kinds of evil. When we pray, it is always important to bring all our brokenness and dependence to the loving and merciful God who is able to provide for our needs.

The heart of prayer is this. We are all broken and in need. Yet God’s loving grace is sufficient, in fact, more than sufficient for us. True prayer is coming before God aware of God’s grace and our need for grace, and simply asking in faith that God will provide what we need, heal us, and deliver us. When we pray, we draw close to the God of the universe and trust God with all our need!

(There's lots more articles to read about the Lord's Prayer at http://www.textweek.com/mtlk/lk11.htm)

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