Teach us to pray

Good morning, Friends! I’m glad to see you all here this morning.

Back in January, we started talking about prayer, which is a very important subject, and something we all need to know about.

Today we’re going to be looking at the Lord’s prayer. We’ve all heard the Lord’s prayer so many times in our lives. Most of us could probably say it by heart. As you get to know me better, one of the things I keep saying, over and over again, is that when things are too familiar, we don’t always think about them.

I heard about one kid who thought that the Lord’s prayer started out, “Our Father, who art in heaven, how’d’ja know my name?”

Years ago, my wife and I had a good friend named Harold Smuck. He was a Quaker missionary, and later he was the head of Friends United Meeting. He always said that the Lord’s prayer was his favorite, because when he was a little boy, he thought it started out, “Harold be thy name.” He thought it was about him!

My mom grew up just outside New York City. She always thought the Lord’s prayer said, “Lead us not into Penn Station”!

Another kid thought the Lord’s prayer says, “Give us this day our jelly bread.” Sounds like God really knows what kids like.

Another little kid thought it says, “And forgive us our trash baskets as we forgive those who put trash in our baskets.”

My favorite was the person who wasn’t very familiar with the Lord’s prayer who thought it says, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us some E-mail. Amen.” I guess they thought the Lord’s prayer comes in an electronic version.

Anyway, most people don’t realize that the Lord’s prayer comes in two versions. The familiar one is in the gospel of Matthew. It’s part of the sermon on the Mount.

In the sermon on the Mount, Jesus has a lot of good advice about prayer. He said, “Don’t pray in public. Don’t pray in order to be heard or seen. Go into a secret place, where nobody sees you. But God will see you. And God, who sees everything in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew 6:5-6)

That’s good advice.

“When you’re praying,” says Jesus, “don’t pile up empty phrases. Some people think that God will hear them if they use a lot of words. Don’t be like them,” Jesus says. “God knows what you need, even before you ask.” (Matthew 6:7)

So, that’s what Jesus says in Matthew’s gospel. But as I say, there are two versions of the Lord’s prayer. The one we’re going to read today is in Luke’s gospel. It’s shorter. But I want us to hear the Lord’s prayer from Luke, because it has some additional wisdom about prayer for us.

One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”

He said to them, “When you pray, say: ‘Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us. And lead us not into temptation.’

Then Jesus said to them, “Suppose you have a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have no food to offer him.’

And suppose the one inside answers, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless audacity he will surely get up and give you as much as you need.

“So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

“Which of you parents, if your child asks for a fish, will give them a snake instead? Or if they asks for an egg, will give them a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

 – Luke 11:1-13

The first thing I want you all to notice is the simple power of those opening words in today’s reading. “Lord, teach us to pray. . .”

Can you feel the hunger there? There’s such a longing. “Teach us to pray. . .”

So many times, I want to pray, but I don’t know how. I want to pray, but I get all tied up in knots.

I want to know how to reach out to God, how to say to God what’s on my heart and in my head. I want to be sure that I’m getting through to God. I want to know that God hears me. I want to know if I’m really praying for the right things. I want to know if it’s OK for me to share my wants and my needs with God.

People are so hungry in their hearts. We have so many needs. We act like we’re pretty self-sufficient, but the reality is that we need a lot of things. So many things are beyond our control. The challenges of life scare us. We know we need answers. “Lord, teach us to pray. . .”

When I pray, God sees into my heart. Does God hold my feelings against me? Is God going to ignore my prayer, just because I’ve been angry? Is God not going to listen to me, because he knows I’ve had doubts in my heart? Does God know my frustration at times? Is God going to refuse to help, because I’ve sinned or made mistakes? All those questions are bound up in those words, “Lord, teach us to pray. . .”

Luke adds a special note to this story. The people said, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples. . .” That’s John the Baptist they were talking about. John apparently taught his followers a special, distinctive prayer that they all used. We don’t know what John’s prayer was. I wish we did. John was a powerful minister. People came in thousands to hear John preach and pray.

Now they came to Jesus, and they asked Jesus to teach them about prayer.
Jesus said, “When you pray, say this. . .”

I don’t think that means we have to be tied down to the exact words that Jesus said. I think he meant, “Pray this way” rather than “Only use these words.” I think that the Lord’s prayer is a pattern for a style of praying. It’s not a straitjacket.

Jesus said to start out by praying, “Father, may your name be always holy. . .”

Jesus called God Father. I don’t think that means that God is an old man with a grey beard. For Jesus, prayer was something intimate. It’s a family matter. God isn’t someplace far away. God is close. It’s like being able to sit down, and reach out, and hold out a hand, and feel the family bond. It’s holy. We’re whole again.

Whatever our joy, or our trouble, God loves us, like the best parent that anyone could ever have. God loves us dearly. God loves us with an everlasting love, a love which can never be exhausted.

When we pray, we’re praying to the Creator of all things, the maker of heaven and earth. But we’re also praying to the one who loves us like our Papa. Like our Momma. The one who delights to see us succeed and win in life. The one who holds us when we hurt. God doesn’t have it in for you. God loves you. That’s who we pray to.

“Father, may your name be kept holy. . .”

You know, we mistreat God’s name all the time. People curse and swear using the name of God. People use the name of God to yell at each other. People in all parts of the world scream God’s name when they’re going into battle, to kill each other. People say God’s name, and they expect God to bless them, when they do terrible things. That’s not holiness. That’s the opposite of holiness.

The prayer Jesus taught calls us to stop and think. Just starting to pray reminds us that some of the things we do aren’t holy. Whenever we use God’s name, whenever we even say the word, “God,” it calls us back to think whether God is a part of this situation, or not.

When we pray in God’s name, we’re asking God to be here, to be with us. And God’s presence displaces, it shoves out, anything that is contrary to God. We can’t bless and curse in the same breath. We can’t speak faith, and hold unfaith in our hearts. If we ask God in, something else has to go out.

The way the Lord’s Prayer works, is that God, and a desire for a special place of holiness in our lives, comes first. All of the other parts of the Lord’s Prayer are important, but this comes first. This is the building block. This is the foundation. It’s the prayer in God’s name, to be holy, to be healthy, to be whole.

“Your kingdom come.”

In Luke’s gospel, that’s it. No, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. . .” That’s the long version. Luke is short and blunt and to the point.

Actually, there are some very ancient handwritten copies of both Matthew and Luke, where the Lord’s prayer says, “Your kingdom come, and may your Holy Spirit come upon us and make us clean. . .”

Those words may actually have been the original version. They’re in some of the earliest hand-written manuscripts of the Bible. I can show you later if you’re interested.

I wonder what it would have been like, if we had been praying that extra phrase, every time we said the Lord’s Prayer, for all these years? What if every time we prayed, we asked for the Holy Spirit to come upon us, and make us clean? We might really be different.

When we pray, “Your kingdom come,” we’re asking for everything that Jesus said to happen, to come true, right now. We’re asking for peace. We’re asking for humility. We’re asking for mercy to become the law of the land and the mainspring of society.

We’re asking for the sick to be cured, for the blind to see, for the lame to walk, for the dead to be raised, in every physical and spiritual sense those words can possibly be applied.

Your kingdom come.” Those three words are asking that everything Jesus said and did should come true. It’s quite a prayer!

We want the poor to become rich, and for the proud and arrogant to be brought low. We want every hungry person to be fed. We want every child to be welcomed and loved, in the name of Christ. We want swords to be beaten into plowshares. We want the smallest gift to be recognized. We want all that, and more.

“Your kingdom come. . .”

Then Jesus tells us to pray, “Give us each day our daily bread. . .”

That takes us back, of course, to the time when God’s people were wandering in the wilderness. For years, they depended on God, every single day, for the most basic need they had – for their daily bread.

Every morning, when they got up, there was fresh bread on the ground, just waiting for them. The manna in the desert. That’s what they ate, every day, for 40 years.

Moses told them, “This is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat. . . morning by morning they gathered it, as much as each person needed.” (Exodus 16:16. 21)

The Lord’s Prayer takes us back to that same story, to that same experience. The people of God learned to trust that God would help them and provide for them, every day. We need to learn that same thing.

We tend to pray only in emergencies. When we’re sick, when we’re hurt, when we’re in trouble, when we’re dying. But Jesus says, “No, prayer is your daily bread. It’s survival food, but it’s also the good nourishment that you need every day. Prayer is like manna in the wilderness. It’s the word of life when we need it most. It’s our daily bread, fresh baked, right out of the oven, and it tastes so good.

Later in this morning’s reading, Jesus says that prayer is like a friend who comes to your house at midnight, and asks for bread.

Can you imagine how annoying that would be? The kids are in bed. I’ve got my shoes off. I’m undressed, maybe already asleep. And here comes this idiot, hammering on the door! But we’d go ahead and get up and give it to them, Jesus says, just to get them out of our hair.

God will answer our prayer, Jesus says, much more readily than we’d help our friend. Because God loves us. God doesn’t see our prayer as annoying. God has all the time in the world for us. We can ask for anything. No prayer is too large. No prayer is too small. The Bible tells us, over and over again, that nothing is impossible for God.

Jesus says, suppose you’re a parent, and your child asks you for something to eat. Would you give them something poisonous? No. It’s your child. You love them. And with all your human faults, says Jesus, if you do that for your children, how much more will God do for you?

“Give us each day our daily bread. . .”

There’s a point in the Lord’s prayer where Christians tend to sort of cough or mumble. “Forgive us our (cough), as we forgive (cough, cough). . .” That’s because different branches of the church say either “debts” or “trespasses”. Sometimes the leader announces, before the prayer starts, which version it’s going to be.

The reason for that difference is, that it’s different in Matthew and in Luke. In Luke, it’s very blunt. “Forgive us our sins.” Literally, it means, “Forgive us, when we miss the mark. Forgive us, when we blow it.”

Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer uses a different word. The word in Matthew usually translates as “debts”. There are lots of stories Jesus told that have to do with forgiving debts.

Remember the two servants? One servant owed the other servant a little bit of money, while the second servant owed his boss a whole lot of money?

The boss wrote off the big debt, and expected the servant to go and do the same to others. But the guy with the big debt decided to try and squeeze the little guy. The boss heard about it, and turned him over to the collection agency.

“Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. . .”

But in other parts of the Bible, the word we sometimes use for “debt” translates out as “should”. That would be interesting, wouldn’t it? “Forgive us all of our ‘shoulds’, as we forgive the ‘shoulds’ of others. . .”

Over and over again, people tell me they feel guilty, because of all the things they feel they should have done, or didn’t do. People tell me they don’t feel good enough. They feel they don’t measure up.

What if we prayed, “Lord, forgive me all of my ‘shoulds’. Forgive my feelings of guilt and unworthiness. And me? I forgive everyone. I let go of all of the obligations and expectations that I lay on them. They’re free. And you, Lord, set me free.”

That would be a really interesting prayer. God says that it’s OK. We can start over. We can let go of all of that incredible multitude of ways we say, “You should. You ought. You must. You owe me. . .” What would it be like to be free?

“Lead us not into temptation. . .”

Temptation” can sometimes seem pretty trivial. I’m tempted to eat too many jelly beans, or to play too much Freecell on my computer.

I’m tempted by choices. Some choices are better. Some choices are worse. There’s a lot of talk today about how people’s lives are shaped by bad choices. That may be true, but it’s not what Luke’s version of the Lord’s prayer is talking about.

“Lead us not into temptation” isn’t about choices. In the Bible, it really means, “Lord, don’t bring us to the place where we’ll be ground up and destroyed. Do not let us be tested to the point of despair or death. Deliver us, not from temptation, but from evil. Deliver us from the naked face of evil itself.”

The Lord’s prayer is a prayer that was said by people who faced martyrdom. It was prayed by people for whom the cross was something literal and personal. The question wasn’t if we’ll be tested and tempted, but when.

Part of what the Lord’s Prayer means is, “Lord, please keep me from those times of terrible tearing and testing. But when I do come to those times and places, Lord, pleas be with me. Stand by me. Help me keep my faith.”

One last point about the Lord’s Prayer that struck me, and it’s very simple, is that it’s not an individual prayer. It doesn’t say “me or “I”. It says “us” and “we.”

“Give us each day our daily bread. Forgive us our sins, as we forgive the debts of others. Do not bring us to the time of trial.”

Sometimes, I think we pray too much as if we’re alone. We pray as if we’re completely separate from other believers and from other human beings along the way.

I’ve heard people pray who feel guilty for doing things that everybody else does. I’ve heard prayers from people who sounded proud that they’re above the crowd. I have heard fellow ministers say that it’s all right with them that everybody else is going to Hell. They know that they’re going to Heaven.

I don’t want to beat this point too much, but I think it’s worth trying to pray the Lord’s Prayer the way Jesus taught it.

Give everyone their daily bread. Everyone in the whole world.

Forgive us. All of us. We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. That means, me too. But I’m not the only sinner. Forgive us from being caught up, as human beings, in a whole system of sin and brokenness and denial and death. We all need forgiveness. Help us to forgive each other, Lord, as you forgive us all.

And do not bring us to the time of trial. Help us. And help us to stand for each other, and pray for each other, and listen to each other, and bear each other’s burdens. None of us really stands alone. No one is an island. We need each other, Lord, and we need you.

Let’s take the Lord’s Prayer into our time of open worship together. If you all have any other thoughts you’d like to share, we welcome that. Let’s center ourselves now in Christ, in his word, in his prayer, and see where he leads us.

Copyright © 2016 by Joshua Brown

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