March 2, 2008
Matthew 6: 5-14
The Lord’s Prayer
A couple of weeks ago, Josh was preaching on one of the hardest to understand passages in the entire Bible. And I kind of got the impression that he liked the challenge of it. I’m the opposite kind of person…somewhat lazy and apathetic by nature although I think I hide it pretty well. In general, I will pick the path of least resistance and if something is too hard or too difficult to understand I won’t let it worry me.
So when Josh sent this email around asking for preaching volunteers, I was happy to do it. But…instead of picking the hardest and most difficult passage to understand, I picked what I thought would be the one of the easiest or most familiar: the Lord’s Prayer. Easy stuff. Everyone’s heard of it. I even had it memorized and had been saying it for years. However, as I sat down to start reading about this passage and writing this sermon, it became much harder than I ever had anticipated.
Basically, my difficulty came down to the fact that, prayer as described here in this passage is something I very rarely do. And not that I don’t think it has some value. Obviously the majority of people who follow Jesus would agree that it does. I just have a lot of questions I guess. Maybe like some of you? Maybe you’d like to know some of mine?
1. Do people actually pray these days? Most of my friends don’t really seem to and I know that I struggle with it. Maybe I just hang around with the wrong people, I don’t know. But it’s been a long, long time since I’ve met anyone where prayer was central to what their life was all about in an evident kind of way.
2. Of the people that do pray, does it actually make a difference in their lives? Why do people who claim to pray not really look any different from those who don’t in terms of the outward reality of their lives?
3. Does prayer actually make a difference in our world? Doesn’t God know what this world needs much better than we do even before we ask Him?
4. Isn’t the outward reality of our actions in the world much more important that the inward reality of things like prayer and contemplation? Like feeding the hungry, pursuing justice and equality for all and peace? Am I just too impatient and want to see instant results?
5. And the great debate…Calvin vs. Arminius. John Calvin said that God will do whatever He wishes, whether we pray or not and prayer basically just orients us to God’s will. So why waste our time I guess? But then Jacobus Arminius said that God’s actions towards us are determined by our praying. And there’s evidence of both of these positions within the Bible. It just all seems too confusing.
Anyway, it wasn’t always so complicated for me. Like I actually used to pray a lot. I’d even get up early every morning and spend time reading the Bible and praying in response to what I read. I’d pray with friends and for random people I’d see on the street or on the bus. I’d pray for people I was going to visit and pray for them after I left. I’d have these amazing experiences of listening to God when I went hiking or running by myself. At times, God’s speaking to me has been clear, in an unmistakable kind of way. Jesus was constantly in my thoughts and often still is today. And yet, I don’t really pray in a formal kind of way, like is described in the Lord’s Prayer. Everyday, my thoughts turn to God as I look at creation and I’m amazed. I am becoming a person who is much more honest and letting other people know a lot more about who I really am. Maybe as I let other people into my life, I’m letting God in as well. I’m learning to forgive and experiencing a lot more about God’s forgiveness in the process. I’m trying to be quiet and actually listen to people and help them figure out where God is at work in their lives. Is this even prayer? Am I just lazy? All these things seem kind of passive whereas the Lord’s prayer seems to involve some sort of active action. All these action verbs like “go” and “close the door” and “pray” and “forgive others.” It says in first Thessalonians to pray without ceasing. And praying for our daily bread in this prayer seems to imply that it’s an everyday kind of thing. It makes me feel kind of uneasy. And I wonder if those around me, myself and the world are somehow missing out on something because I don’t really pray in a formal kind of way.
It’s probably enough questions for today: let’s read our passage. (6-9) Matthew 6:5-14.
So it kind of seems to me that a lot of the stuff we do is for external rewards. Like at our jobs, I would have a hard time believing that if your boss is watching you, you wouldn’t work any harder or better than you normally do. Or, with friends and family, we often try to gain the upper hand or make ourselves appear funny or intelligent often at the expense of others. And of course our appearance….putting on our best outfit to go to Church on Sunday. To appear holy? To please God? I don’t really know.
(6) In verse 5, Jesus is critical of those who make private prayer public. The Greek word used for street refers to a major or a wide street where there would have been many people. The street corner where the hypocrites prayed would have had crowds of people gathered around. But not that Jesus is against public prayer, there are many recorded, positive instances of it in the Bible and Jesus himself prayed in front of His disciples. And I don’t really think Jesus is against street corners either. The Jewish people, back when Jesus walked around Palestine would have certain prayers they would pray at certain times of the day, no matter where they were. Actually, the Lord’s prayer is quite similar to one called the 18 Beatitudes, kind of like the short version of it. Anyway, Jewish people would often stand praying, wherever they were, which wasn’t really a big deal even if it was on a street somewhere. The issue seems to be more about the heart: whether it’s to be seen by men or to worship and commune with God.
It kind of reminds me of a story. Back in the Old Testament, a long time ago there was this prophet named Samuel. A prophet is basically someone who speaks for God in an audible kind of way. Anyway, God rejected King Saul because he did some not so good things. So God tells Samuel to go to Jesse and anoint a certain one of his sons as the new King. So Jesse passes 7 of his sons before Samuel and each time Samuel looks at his appearance and thinks he’s the one. But he’s not. Samuel was looking at the outward appearance but God was looking at the heart. Finally, all 7 of the sons don’t make the cut and Samuel asks if there are any more sons who aren’t home. Yes, there is one more, the youngest who is out tending sheep. So he’s summoned home and as it turns out he’s to be the King. Years later, David would be called a man after God’s own heart. You may disagree, but it seems to me that it is almost impossible to please both God and people. So let your praying be pleasing to God: don’t do it for the external rewards you will get from people. No one likes to be used for someone else’s personal gain. I have a feeling God is pretty similar.
Continuing on in verse 6. The word for room that Jesus uses actually refers to an inner room without windows. It’s common usage is for a storage closet and it basically means the most private room of your house . True prayer is an intimate kind of thing, oriented towards God alone as a reflection of a personal kind of relationship. Jesus, prayed with His disciples sometimes but he also went away, alone to pray to His Father.
(7) Verse 7 and 8. Back in the day of Jesus, prayer in Judaism had become ritualized. As in prayers were almost always memorized and could be simply repeated without even being conscious of what was said. Sometimes, they were sped through as fast as possible just to get them over with. Kind of sounds to me like all the prayers that we say before meals, in an embarrassed, get this over with kind of way. And not necessarily better were the pagans of the day who had the idea that God could be manipulated with their words and actions. They repeated certain magic words over and over again, thinking that perhaps their gods didn’t hear them the first hundred times.
This kind of reminds me of another prophet story. So things were looking pretty bad in Israel and Elijah was the only prophet left who was faithful to God. The people were wavering between worshipping God, Baal and Asherah who had 850 prophets. So Elijah set up a challenge on Mt. Carmel and invited all of Israel to come. So he gets two bulls and puts them on altars, one for him and one for the other prophets and the God who answers by lighting it on fire is the true one whom the people of Israel should worship. So these other prophets dance and called on their gods for hours but no response. Finally, Elijah gets tired of it and begins to trash talk them because their gods are so weak and decides to show them who’s boss. So he fills up these huge jars with water and pours them over his bull and the wood just so when the fire lights no one can think he’s playing a trick. Then he says a short prayer and the entire altar and all the water is consumed instantly.
So, there are no magic words or things we can do to manipulate God into doing what we want Him to do. It took me a while to learn that it’s actually about a relationship and just as it would be crazy to coerce and manipulate the people we love in our lives, so it’s just as crazy to expect to be able to do this with God. God is not a vending machine, ready to dispense based on our whims.
Verse 8 leads us to my big question of why we should pray if God knows what we need before we even ask Him? While comforting, I think this verse is kind of annoying. Like I’d be a lot more motivated to pray if it wasn’t in the Bible. I would never claim to actually understand this paradox of why God tells us to pray when He knows everything we need before we ask and I would be suspicious of anyone who claimed to have all the answers. But, maybe it has something to do with prayer being the means by which we admit to God what we need and through this, acknowledge our dependence upon Him. But don’t quote me on it…I’m wary of even writing this down on paper. And since in other places in the Bible, including the very next verse Jesus tells us to pray, we probably should. A bit of mystery and humility about the things of God is something we should be okay.
Moving on to the actual prayer. (8)
Jesus tell us that this is how we should pray. In English, depending on your Bible translation it’s kind of deceptive making it seem like this is exactly the way we should pray. In reality, the meaning is more like we should pray in this manner and use this perhaps as an outline or sketch of how we should pray and that we don’t necessarily have to repeat or babble these words endlessly.
The address of this prayer is to our Father, who is in Heaven, hallowed be His name. It kind of reminds me of another story. All these people were bringing their babies and young children to Jesus, so that He would put His hands on them and bless them. The disciples told them to go away and stop harassing Jesus. But Jesus said to let the little children come to Him because the Kingdom belonged to them and that everyone else should enter the Kingdom of Heaven like a child would. So it seems pretty appropriate that we would pray to God in this way, coming humbly and respectfully, knowing that our Father loves us. Also, it’s pretty similar to how many Jewish prayers started during the time of Jesus.
Verse 10, about God’s Kingdom is central to this prayer and the concept of God’s Kingdom is in essence, what all of the teachings of Jesus were about. The Kingdom of God is a past, present and future reality in that God himself, in Jesus walked upon this Earth. Today, God’s Spirit is at work in this world and we also look forward to the second coming of Jesus, as described in Revelation 21. So when we pray this prayer, we are praying for Jesus to come again and the Kingdom of god to become fully present. It’s about subverting the present world order in order that God’s order might come. We’re praying for healing for all people, both physically and spiritually. We’re asking that God would act in a real, concrete way to make this world better for all people.
Throughout history, there have been various groups of people who believed that the Kingdom or reign of God could somehow be ushered in through their own efforts. And yet, by understanding the Greek grammar of the Lord’s Prayer it’s obvious that this isn’t possible. The verbs are in the imperative, which in Greek is the most forceful way to tell someone to do something. So, there’s almost a desperation to this prayer. Secondly, the verbs are in the passive voice, which means that it’s only God who is able to do that which we’re asking. It’s not through our own evangelistic efforts or political agendas that God’s Kingdom comes. Our task it to pray and depend upon God for the results. But the paradox is that in other places in the Bible such as in the book of James we’re told that faith without works is dead. So, obviously we’re to love people and do good works but it seems unwise to me to spend a lot of time and mental effort figuring out how this all fits into God’s cosmic plan. So may God’s Kingdom come, both in our own lives and the life of this Church and also for the world as a whole to bring new life and healing.
Let’s move onto the next line, “Give us today our daily bread.” This phrase seems kind of meaningless to most of us I think who are well fed and haven’t really thought about where out next meal is coming from in the context of being able to afford it or not. I know I have the after-Church debate with friends about where to go for lunch but that I never have to look in my wallet and decide if I have enough money to go or not. But did you know that around 25 000 people die everyday from hunger-related illnesses in this world? It actually kind of disturbs me and hopefully you as well. Praying this prayer does 2 things: 1. It acknowledges that everything we have is a gift from God and that it is not inherently ours but we are just caretakers and stewards of this Earth. 2. As caretakers and stewards, we’ve been doing a pretty bad job and hopefully praying this line will remind of us that. And move us to action. As in consuming less so that everyone in this Earth will have enough for their daily bread. We need to share this world’s resources. Maybe we really did learn everything we needed to know in kindergarten. A friend of mine had a bumper sticker that said, “God has blessed the world, some people are just bad at sharing.” It seems that prayer and human activity are tied together in some way and that both are needed.
Verses 12 and 14-15 are closely related and all deal with forgiveness. But not just forgiveness in the sense that we are forgiven for our sins by God but that we need to forgive others as well or this won’t happen. This idea of human forgiveness and God’s forgiveness being tied together is central in Judaism and so Jesus is not introducing a radical, new idea here. But to some of our individualistic, western kind of ears, maybe it sounds this way. A lot of us have the idea that following Jesus is this individual kind of thing. Like Jesus is our best friend and that we accept him into our heart and go from there. But in reality, following Jesus can never be separated from the people around us. If following Jesus has no impact upon the way that you live your life with people, I would question whether you are actually following Jesus at all. Anyway, God loves us and wants to forgive us but in order to experience this we need to forgive people as well. And sometimes this is hard but Jesus for sure and probably at least a few people in this Church are willing to walk with you along this path.
Finally, verse 13. And in case we ever get too confident, thinking that we are strong enough to avoid sin on our own this can remind us that that’s not really the case. Any sense of security we have in our efforts to attain holiness is a false one because in reality it’s through Jesus that we’re made holy. It’s by His grace that we can turn from our sin.
Some final thoughts. It seems to me that this whole praying thing is wrapped up in paradoxes. Like how Jesus tells us to go pray in secret and yet our own forgiveness is wrapped up in our ability to forgive other people. And if you’re supposed to pray in secret why are all the pronouns in the plural form? Or how we should pray for God’s Kingdom to come because our actions can’t make it come any quicker but then how following Jesus involves loving other people. And how God knows what we need but we should ask anyway, for some reason that is not altogether clear. (10) Anyway, I try not to stress about it. I hope you don’t either. One day, things will be much clearer I think and until that day, I’m okay with walking around in this state of somewhat clueless confusion, wondering what this whole following Jesus thing is all about and what impact it actually has upon living my life. And now you’re maybe wondering and perhaps worrying about why I haven’t talked about hiking yet. Don’t worry…I actually believe that no sermon is ever complete without a hiking analogy. Like maybe you’re hiking and it’s been raining all night and you wake up and it’s stopped raining but the forest if filled with fog and mist. So you find the trail and start walking, and even though you can’t see more than a few meters in any direction, you just trust that this trail you’re on will get you towards your destination. And it always does as long as you follow the signs along the way. I kind of see our whole time on Earth as walking in the fog, filled with much confusion and uncertainty but walking towards our goal of knowing Jesus and trusting that one day we’ll get there. Because who really has everything figured out?
It kind of reminds me of another story. So back when Jesus was walking around Israel, there was this man who brought his sick son to the disciples for healing, but the disciples couldn’t heal him. It kind of sounds like the boy had seizures that left him unable to talk. Anyway, Jesus clearly blames the lack of healing on unbelief and wonders out loud how long he should put up with this unbelieving generation. The Father to Jesus says, if you can do anything, help us. Jesus then says everything is possible for one who believes and the father says Lord I believe, help my unbelief and the boy is healed. Maybe that’s kind of the way I think about prayer. Maybe you don’t have it all figured out, like me but you can still do it anyway. I have a feeling it’s a good thing for you and for this world.
Let’s pray the Lord’s prayer together, not as it is traditionally done but more in the way Jesus intended it I think. We’ll use it a framework for your own prayers. I’ll say a line and pause for about a minute. During that time, you can respond to God with your own thoughts and words.