Matthew 6:5-9, Luke 11:1-2
Rick, a sales manager, says this about his struggle with prayer: “In my life, being busy is a big obstacle to prayer. There is seemingly so much to do. Society moves at a rapid rate, and stress is more common than the common cold. I find myself caught up in busyness, trying to tackle my to-do list, but missing God. If I am honest, the big to-do list is self-inflicted, and the stress my own fault. The reality of the situation is that letting go of my busyness and turning to God is the only way to have a real life.”[i]
It seems to me that prayer is, at the same time, both the easiest thing to do, and the hardest. It can be done sitting, standing, or lying down. Eyes opened or closed. Aloud or silent. Although aloud, even when you’re alone, seems to help the mind stay focused a little better. You can do it on a hike or while shopping. Even while driving, provided your eyes are open. You can do it any time, anywhere. And no one can stop you from doing it. Even in countries where the Bible is banned and gathering for Christian worship is illegal, people can and do pray. It’s the single most accessible, easiest to travel with component of a life lived following Jesus.
It’s actually impossible to ban prayer, because it can be done without anyone knowing you’re doing it. I laugh when I think about the huge kerfuffle created years ago over America’s banning of prayer in schools. They haven’t banned prayer. Christian teachers in public schools pray for their students all the time, don’t they Susan? And Christian students are free to pray with and for each other right in the middle of the hallway. No one can be FORCED to pray, so teachers cannot lead their classes in formal prayer, but as someone who has been married to a public school educator for 23 years now, I can promise you, there IS prayer in our schools. Daily.
You can do it anywhere. In any position. Without anyone knowing. You can’t ban it or regulate it in any way. And yet prayer is probably the thing we as followers of Jesus struggle to do more than anything else.
But if we’re really following Jesus, we must pray. Why? Because Jesus prayed. A lot. There were times in his ministry where the demand on his time and his healing power was so great that he withdrew from the crowds, sometimes for hours at a time, to pray. Sometimes it seemed that he was spending more time in prayer than he was with people, healing and teaching and mentoring his disciples. Prayer was so central to his life and his way of praying was so different than anything his disciples had seen before that they asked him, “Lord, teach us to pray.” Turn with me to Luke 11:1-2.
Prayer. That’s what they wanted to learn how to do like Jesus did. Not raise the dead. Not multiply food or turn water into wine or heal the sick. How to pray. As they watched, and lived with, and walked with, and listened to Jesus, that’s what they wanted to learn how to do. And his lesson was quite short. It was also incredibly deep, because it was in response to that request, “Lord, teach us to pray” that Jesus gave us what we call The Lord’s Prayer. And it’s that prayer, as recorded in both Luke’s gospel and Matthew’s gospel in slightly different forms, that we’re going to be looking at this fall. We’ve already looked at Luke’s introduction and the first word of the prayer. Let’s look at Matthew’s. Turn over to Matthew 6:5-9.
The great theologian Frederick Buechner says this about the Lord’s Prayer: “In the Episcopal Order of Worship, the priest sometimes introduces the Lord’s Prayer with the words, “Now, as our Savior Christ hath taught us, we are bold to say …” The word bold is worth thinking about. We do well not to pray the prayer lightly. It takes guts to pray it at all. We can pray it in the unthinking and perfunctory way we usually do only by disregarding what we are saying.
“Thy will be done” is what we are saying. That is the climax of the first half of the prayer. We are asking God to be God. We are asking God to do not what we want but what God wants. We are asking God to make manifest the holiness that is now mostly hidden, to set free in all its terrible splendor the devastating power that is now mostly under restraint. “Thy kingdom come … on earth” is what we are saying. And if that were suddenly to happen, what then? What would stand and what would fall? Who would be welcomed in and who would be thrown the Hell out? Which if any of our most precious visions of what God is and of what human beings are would prove to be more or less on the mark and which would turn out to be as phony as three-dollar-bills? Boldness indeed. To speak these words is to invite the tiger out of the cage, to unleash a power that makes atomic power look like a warm breeze.
You need to be bold in another way to speak the second half. Give us. Forgive us. Don’t test us. Deliver us. If it takes guts to face the omnipotence that is God’s, it takes perhaps no less to face the impotence that is ours. We can do nothing without God. Without God we are nothing.
It is only the words “Our Father” that make the prayer bearable. If God is indeed something like a father, than as something like children may we can risk approaching him anyway.”[ii]
“To speak these words is to invite the tiger out of the cage … it is only the words “Our Father” that make it bearable.” I love that. And those words, “Our Father,” are the words we’re looking at today. But before Jesus teaches us how to pray, he teaches us how NOT to pray. Look at Vv. 5-6.
Before teaching us how to pray, Jesus takes us to the heart of the matter: our motive for prayer. Prayer isn’t intended to be showy. Prayer isn’t a tool to look more spiritual in certain company. Now, Jesus often prayed in public. His disciples didn’t just know THAT he prayed, they had watched him pray. And the most common way to pray in his day, and it’s a great way to pray in ours, is to pray out loud. Even if you’re alone, it helps keep the mind focused. But we aren’t to draw attention to ourselves as we pray. We aren’t to try to be more spiritual than the person sitting or standing next to us, or pray so that someone across the room will see us praying and know how spiritual we are. That is NOT the attitude we are to have as we pray. False spirituality is showy. Real faith, real prayer, isn’t.
Now, look at Vv. 7-8. Not only is authentic prayer not showy, it also isn’t some kind of incantation. It isn’t about saying the right words in the right order, and doing the right things, so that God will do what we want God to do. And on an intellectual level, we understand that. That’s paganism, not Christianity. But is practice, we often do exactly that. “If I just post this prayer in my business, my business will be successful and profitable.” “If I speak God’s blessings over my finances, I’ll be blessed financially.” “If I speak this blessing over my family or over my home, I’ll always have a nice, peaceful home and a comfortable life and great kids and a storybook marriage.” That isn’t prayer. That’s an attempt to bend God to my will like he’s some kind of being I can control with the right words and the right actions. That’s magical thinking, not real faith.
Prayer doesn’t have to be offered in a specific format, and it doesn’t have to be wordy. Prayer isn’t showy, and it isn’t a way to control God. It also isn’t giving God information God doesn’t already have. It isn’t informing God about something. “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” Yeah, he also knows the difference between a need and a want. But if God knows my need before I ask, why pray? Isn’t that what it comes down to? God already knows what has happened, is happening, and is going to happen, and God knows my real needs in the midst of all of that. So why pray? Because prayer reminds me that although I am not in control, God is. It reminds ME that I am wholly dependent upon God. Prayer isn’t showy, or telling God something God doesn’t know already, and it isn’t a way of getting things from God. But it IS an expression of the relationship of trust I have with my heavenly Father.
“Pray then like this: Our Father …”
“When you pray, say: “Father …”
Father. It’s a loaded word, isn’t it? There’s a ton of meaning there. Yes, it speaks of intimacy and relationship. The word Jesus used, in Aramaic, the language he spoke, which was a derivative of Hebrew, was “Abba.” It COULD mean something like “daddy,” a term of endearment for a father, but it was used in more formal ways too.
Yes, “Father” is a word of relationship, but what kind of relationship? If God is our Father, then we are God’s … children. But what kind of children? Natural children? Or adopted children? In Galatians 4:4-7, St. Paul says, “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.” In terms of God as our CREATOR, yes, all humans are children of God. But in terms of SALVATION? No. We become children of God on the basis of the work of the SON, Jesus, the Christ, and we are ADOPTED into the family of God. It is a relationship in which Father has adopted into his family, on the basis of the death of the Son on the cross, us, former slaves to sin, as full sons and daughters. We are slaves who have been made sons and daughters. When we, because of Jesus, call God “Father,” we are speaking about our hope, about our identity as God’s children.
Children? Yes. Not by nature. By nature we are slaves to sin. We are children, full children, with all of the rights and benefits thereof, by grace. Now, there’s something here that we miss because things no longer happen this way, but it was almost universally true in Jesus’ day. Children learned their father’s trade. They took upon themselves their father’s work. Humanly speaking, so did Jesus. From his early teens until he was a little over 30, Jesus followed in his human father Joseph’s footsteps as what? A carpenter. A builder. Children were apprenticed to their father.
As children of God, we are apprenticed to him, through Jesus. We take up our Father’s work. To follow Jesus is to be apprenticed to our heavenly Father through Jesus. When Jesus said, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9), he was saying, “I am your representation of what God is like.” Jesus shows us what God is like. God is Jesus-like. And as his children, who are loved as children, we are his apprentices.
When we pray, “Our Father,” we are praying, “As my Father, your family is my family, and your work is my work. I want your goals to become my goals.” It isn’t about getting my Father to do what I want. It’s about me doing what my Father wants. It’s about me as his child obeying him as my Father.
Obedience requires trust. Now, let’s be honest. Every human father is broken. Some are more broken than others. Some fathers are so broken that their children have a very twisted view of what real fatherhood is like. Some of us can’t even begin to imagine trusting a father. So to call God, “Our Father,” brings fear and pain and mistrust. Some have experienced so much trauma at the hands of their earthly father that calling God “Our Father” drives them away from God, not toward God.
That’s why Luke makes sure that we understand that God is the only truly GOOD father out there. Look at Luke 11:11-13. The fact that some of us have pain associated with the word “Father” means that we all have in us a sense that this isn’t what fatherhood is supposed to be. There is something more, something better, something whole out there that is true fatherhood, and it comes only from THE Father. The one perfectly good Father who knows what you NEED before you even ask.
Some of us may not have been able to trust our human fathers at all. None of us could trust them completely, and that goes for my kids too. But we CAN trust our heavenly father. And the pain that comes when our human fathers fall short is evidence of the reality of God’s perfect love and trustworthiness. And when I begin to accept and understand and rest in this truth, this reality, I can set my own human father free from the grudges and whatever else I might hold against him and accept him for who he is. And in some cases, with unsafe and abusive fathers, that might mean maintaining a really strong boundary and a lot of distance. But I am set free to forgive.
So there’s one other word we need to pay attention to, and that’s the word that Matthew includes and Luke leaves out. It’s the word “Our.” “OUR Father.” In our culture we, to our own detriment, overly value and celebrate the word “MY.” My Father. My life. My job. My rights. Individualism reigns supreme in our culture. And we can come to our heavenly father as individuals and know that he welcomes us and hears us and is concerned about us. Many of the Psalms, Israel’s prayer book, are written that way. From the perspective of the individual.
But when Jesus teaches us to pray, he teaches us to use the word “Our.” “Our Father.” Even when we are alone, in our room with the door shut, we are a part of a family – God’s family. And we have brothers and sisters who are in need. We have brothers and sisters filled with joy, and we have brothers and sisters filled with grief and pain and fear. And we come to God with gratitude for the joy, and with empathy for those in pain. As followers of Christ, we never stand alone. And we never pray alone, even when we’re physically alone in a room somewhere.
Funny thing about families. They’re all dysfunctional. Some are mostly dysfunctional, but they’re all at least a little bit dysfunctional. And while its still here on earth, a part of this fallen creation, the family of God is no different. And our tendency as the family of God, just as it is with our human family, is to go storming off and slam the door and stay away for a week, or a month, or a year. Or forever. But that isn’t what God wants for his family. That’s why, in Colossians 3:13 we read, “bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” And again in Ephesians 4:2, “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love …” I love that, because it’s basically God saying to his children, “You might not always LIKE each other, but you will always LOVE each other. So put up with each other if you have to, apologize when you need to, even if you don’t think you did anything wrong.” Why? Because he is OUR Father, and that makes us brothers and sisters, whether we like it or not. Let us pray.
[i] Johann Christoph Arnold, Cries From The Heart, chapter 9.
[ii] Frederick Buechner, Listening to Your Life