Saturday, 23 July 2016

Learning to pray the Lord's Prayer

The disciples come to Jesus and say, 'Lord teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples'.

It is interesting to see how Jesus does not answer that question

He does not give them practical instructions.
He doesn’t tell them to put their hands together and close their eyes. He gives the practical stuff, elsewhere, in Matthew 6.6-7: go to a room, shut the door, pray in secret, don’t use many words and trust that your Father in heaven will hear you.
But here he doesn't.

And he does not begin by telling them to silence or still themselves
Again, meditation (or mindfulness), the discipline of seeking to silence all the thoughts that are coming in, often linked with sitting correctly and making sure that our breathing is correct, is an extremely helpful way of stilling ourselves and becoming aware of that something or someone who is so much bigger than ourselves. It is very precious and it is something that I do – when I stop, focus on my breathing, and meditate on the Jesus prayer. I’m also wondering whether it could be something that we do a bit more of as a church, perhaps offering a time for coming together for silent prayer. But I am also aware that even though it can give you a deep sense of peace, it is not necessarily prayer.

And Jesus does not tell them to pray from the heart, to pray whatever is on their mind.
There is, I suspect, a good reason for that. Most of the time our heart is very confused and our mind is full of rubbish. We don’t know what we want, and when we do, we usually have got it wrong! We are very mixed up!

I am currently reading a fascinating book called The Spirit Level. It is not a Christian book, despite the title, although it is what I would call a Kingdom of God book. The thesis is that what our society needs is not more affluence but greater equality. The evidence seems to show that when the gap between the richest 20% and the poorest 20% in society is small, then people tend to be happier and healthier, and more at peace with themselves and others.
But the book begins with this paragraph: 'It is a remarkable paradox that, at the pinnacle of human material and technical achievement, we find ourselves anxiety-ridden, prone to depression, worried about how others see us, unsure of our friendships, driven to consume and with little or no community life. Lacking the relaxed social contact and emotional satisfaction we all need, we seek comfort in over-eating, obsessive shopping and spending, or become prey to excessive alcohol, psychoactive medicines and illegal drugs."
We don’t really know what we want.

So Jesus doesn’t give practical instructions, he doesn’t tell us to still ourselves, and he doesn’t tell us to pray from the heart. Instead

1.    He gives us a specific prayer to pray

It is a dangerous prayer. It is so dangerous, so subversive that it was banned from the cinemas! We know it as the Lord’s prayer, and what we have here in Luke is the shorter of the two versions that we find in the bible. The other, fuller, version is in Matthew 6.9-11

When you pray, say ..

It all begins with God.

And that is helpful, because most of what we call prayer begins with ourselves: 'God, I'm in trouble; God, I really want that job or that car or that place in university or that person to love me; God heal me or heal them, because I love them and I can't live without them'.

But Jesus begins with God. He begins with God's honour.
Hallowed be your name'.
Not my honour, reputation or status, but his honour and reputation and status.
If you love someone, you want others to see how great they are: if we love God we long to see God's name honoured and revered.

'Your kingdom come'.
This is the radical bit. We are praying that things will not be done my way, but his way.

Luke in his gospel speaks a great deal about the coming kingdom, rule of God. He reminds us that it will be a place of justice.
Think of the Magnificat (Luke 1.46-55), the song that Mary sang when she was told that she would give birth to the Son of God. She speaks of the future reality of the Kingdom as if it was a present experience:
'He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the Rich away empty'.

I wonder whether that is a prayer that we really do want to pray?
But I hope we long for the kingdom, for that time when Jesus will be so present, when there will be justice and mercy and all things will be in harmony, when there will be no more pain or tears or death.

Give us each day our daily bread
It is the prayer that God will meet our daily needs. Note the plural ‘us’. One of the questions we need to ask is who does the 'us' include?

Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who sins against us.
Each of these could be a sermon in itself. All I will note here is that without the recognition that we need forgiveness there can be no real prayer, no relationship with God. You cannot have a real relationship with another if you are not honest. There is a barrier. And if you are pretending before God that you have not walked away from him, that you have not rebelled against him and lived your way and not his way, then you are not being honest. We need to get real with him.
And because God longs to forgive, and has forgiveness at his very heart, if we do not, in turn, offer forgiveness to others, then we have no part in God.
So this is a prayer that nothing will hinder our relationship with God or with others.

Lead us not into temptation
Other versions translate this as, ‘Do not bring us to the time of trial’. Do not take us to that point beyond which we will break, that point of utter darkness, of God forsakenness, of hell. Only Jesus has really known it. And he went there so that we need never go there. And this is a prayer that he will give you the strength and comfort to face the very worst that life can throw at you without abandoning him.

So Jesus gives us a prayer to prayer

2.    Jesus teaches us to pray this prayer from a position of emptiness

The danger of praying the Lord's Prayer is that it can become an exercise in legalism. I must pray it or God will not like me.

One man I used to visit when I was a vicar in Islington told me how he had to pray the Lord's Prayer every day, along with a whole set of other prayers; if he didn't, if he missed even just one of the prayers, he felt guilty, he felt that he had let God down.
I tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade him that that is not the case.

Prayer is not simply about speaking some set words. To say your prayers because you think those prayers need to be said is to miss the point. It is to treat God as if he is sitting up there with his notebook. He looks down at us and says, ‘Now has Jenny said her prayers today? Yes, very good, tick; No, cross, she needs to do better tomorrow’.

But we don’t pray the Lord’s prayer because it is something we have to do for God.
We pray the Lord’s prayer because we have nothing else to depend on, and it is God’s gift to us.

Look at the story Jesus told.
I hate asking anybody for anything. I guess it is partly because I don't want them to have to say 'no' to me. That’s a bit of a problem for a vicar! But I don’t think I am on my own. We don’t want to be a nuisance to someone.
And this man will have been no different.
But he asks. And he asks at midnight. There is no way I would go next door and ask our neighbour for bread at midnight. And when his friend says, 'Shove off. I'm in bed, the children are in bed, the wife is in bed, the dog is on the bed and you should be in bed', he doesn’t get the hint. He still goes on asking. And we are told that his friend finally gets up, not because he is his friend, but because of his boldness, because of his persistence.

The point, says Jesus, is that he asks - he seeks - he knocks on the door of his friend because he is desperate. In middle eastern culture, if someone rocks up at your door, even at midnight, you have to offer them hospitality. And he had nothing. It was Mrs Hubbard and her cupboard. It was bare. 'I have nothing to set before them', he says. And that is why he was prepared to go to his friend at midnight, hammer at his door, and continue to knock until he got what he needed.

We pray the Lord’s prayer not because God expects us to pray it, but because we have got nothing else to depend on. It is a cry to God for the utter basic necessities: for that world of peace and justice, for bread, for forgiveness and for strength to get through the times of trouble.

The Lord’s prayer begins to become real for us when we realise that we come before our Father in heaven because we have absolutely nothing. It becomes real when we recognise that we are utterly dependent on him.

It is to our shame that we forget that.

It is sheer arrogance to think that because we live in a society where there is an abundance of bread, and an abundance of butter and jam and cake, we don’t need God.
(The reason, for instance, that it is good to say a prayer before we eat a meal, is that it is - at the very least - lip service to a recognition that everything we have comes from God.)
It is utter pride to think that we can waltz into the presence of God without recognising that we need forgiveness
It is breath-taking conceit to think that we can rescue ourselves from the pitfalls of life.

I tried to imagine what the opposite of the Lord’s prayer would be, and I came up with this statement:

I will live life so that
People will know that I matter. They will honour me. I will get the respect that I deserve, and nobody will walk over me.
I will be the head and not the tail. I will do what I want. Others need to fit in with me. That doesn’t mean I’m not going to be nice, but I will be nice on my own terms.
I will be in a position to get what I want.
I will be in a position so that I never need to say sorry to anybody for anything. And people will quickly learn that they don’t mess with me.
I will be fit enough, strong enough, rich enough and am sufficiently well-connected so that I can save myself

The Lord’s prayer can only really be prayed by people who know that there is a God, that they are not God, and that without God we are nothing and we have nothing.
It is a prayer that can really only begin to make sense when we realise that we need God’s provision, need God’s forgiveness and need God’s protection.
It is a prayer that can only really be prayed by people who know that they are empty.

3. Jesus teaches us to pray this prayer with confidence

You will notice that I have not mentioned that in this prayer, we do not pray here to God as Almighty or Eternal or All-knowing. We do not address God as Creator or Judge. We pray to God as Father.

That is an astonishing reality. That we can address the Creator and Sustainer and Judge of the universe as our Father in heaven.
And Jesus, in verses 11-13, expands on what that means.

He says, think of human fathers. Even though you are evil (that is quite strong!), you still want to give good gifts to your children. If they ask you for an egg you don’t give them a scorpion. So, he says, God is your Father in heaven. He is good, and he delights in giving you good gifts.
Actually, it doesn’t say that. It says something even more remarkable: ‘How much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him’?

God does want to give us good gifts – he does want to give us bread, to offer us forgiveness, to protect us from trials that are too hard for us to stand – but he wants to go further. He longs to give us Himself, his Spirit to come and live in us.

And we can pray and ask God for his Spirit. And we can pray in confidence. And even if we don’t experience anything, we by faith can believe that he has answered that prayer, and we can welcome his Spirit, and his Spirit will change us and make us more like the Lord Jesus. And his Spirit will begin to pray from within us, and his Spirit will start to shape our prayer (which is really his prayer): that his name will be hallowed, that his kingdom will come, and that we will know his perfect provision, his wonderful forgiveness and acceptance, and his comfort and protection.

Sunday, 17 July 2016

Receiving from God

This is a passage for people who have forgotten what it is to be saved by faith.

When the Galatian Christians first came to faith, it was because they realised how much God loved them and what he had done for them. They realized that, however good or religious they were, they could not save themselves; that they could not do anything to earn the love of God. But they also understood what God had done for them in Jesus – and so they received his love, his forgiveness and his Spirit simply by putting their trust in him.

But some false teachers have come to the church in Galatia, and they are telling them, ‘You need to do more than just receive the Spirit of God. You need to earn it. You need to be good; you need to be circumcised; you need to keep special days in special ways’.

That is what Paul is on about when he speaks about observing special days, months, seasons and years. He is not having a go at Christians who fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday or Wednesdays or Fridays; he is not having a go at those who keep Sunday special or who celebrate Easter or Christmas or the special church festivals. He is having a go at those people who are saying that if you do not do those things – if you don’t celebrate those days – then you are not a proper Christ-follower. He is challenging the people who say that you need faith in Jesus plus something else in order to be a proper Christian.

And Paul is saying that when you do that, you are turning back from a God who offers you unconditional love, who offers you the freedom to be his son or daughter, into a system of slavery (v8) – of slavery to the law – of slavery to a system that says, ‘If you do this and this and that, then God will like you and bless you’.
Listen, he says!
It is hard to miss the passion in the letter: ‘I am astonished you are so quickly deserting the one who called you’ (1.6); ‘I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed!’ (1.9); ‘You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you’ (3.1); ‘I wish those who unsettle you (who demanded that they should all be circumcised) would go and castrate themselves’ (5.12). And here in v20, ‘I am perplexed about you’.

Listen, he says!
‘Haven’t you got it?! Don’t you remember the joy when you realised that God knows you and loves you, and there is nothing you can do to make him love you more or love you less?
Don’t you remember the freedom that comes from realising that you don’t need to do anything in order to be forgiven or filled by the Spirit of God – apart from to simply receive the Spirit!’

Listen, he says!
Don’t pay attention to these false teachers.
Don’t become slaves to a system that promises you glory but gives you the gutter.
Never ever think that you can earn the love of God.

And in this letter, he challenges the pride of the man or woman who thinks that they can be good enough or religious enough.
He challenges the arrogance of the man or woman who thinks that they can do something for God which will put God in their debt.
What a joke! It is as if I give you £10 million, and then you give me back £5, and expect me to say thank you. How can we do anything that puts the One who has given us everything in our debt.

When I was about 18, I remember – in a moment of devout fervour - praying, ‘God, I will do anything for you’. And immediately I had a thought. It was so clear and sharp and counter-intuitive and penetrating that I can say with some confidence that God spoke to me. He said, ‘Who are you to do anything for me?’ It was astonishingly liberating, because in that moment I realised that I couldn’t do anything for him – but that I didn’t need to, because he loved me and had done everything for me.

And Paul goes on to say that when he first visited the area – and he turned up at the door of the Galatians not because he planned to but because he was ill – they welcomed him and they welcomed his message.
Because he told them that whatever they did - not even if they gave away all their money, gave their life to bring hope to people living in desperate poverty, dedicated the rest of their life to be in church or saying prayers, or devoted their lives to meditation or mindfulness – they could never ever get themselves right with God.
But he told them they did not need to.
He told them that God knows them. Do you notice that strange verse (v9): ‘Now however that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God’? God knew them – the good in them and the muck in them. He knew their pride, self-centredness, their refusal to trust in him.  And yet despite that, he loves them, has forgiven them, and he has reached out to them to offer them forgiveness, the Holy Spirit and a future hope. And the only thing that they need to do is to receive the gift that he offers to us.  

That is why, at the heart of the Christian faith, it is not about what we can do for God but about what we can receive from God.

The perfect example of this is Jesus’ story of the two brothers in Luke 15.11-30

The younger son has lost everything and really messed his life up. He thinks that he has to show his Father how repentant he is. He prepares his speech: ‘I am not worthy to be called your son. Make me your servant’. But his father doesn’t even let him get his speech out. He runs to him – and all the younger son has to do is to allow his Father to embrace him. And as for the older son – we all feel for him – it does seem unfair. But it seems that all along he was trying to earn his father’s love by working hard in the fields, by being good, by doing everything that his father asked him to do - when actually he had never really received his Father’s love. He had never allowed his Father to embrace him.

And what is interesting in the story of the Prodigal Son was that it was only when the younger brother suffers a catastrophic moral failure that he began to realise the depths of his Father’s love. And it often is the moments of deep failure - moral or spiritual – when we are brought to our senses, and we realise we have nothing to offer God but can only receive his forgiveness. I think that is one of the reasons why Luther said, slightly tongue in cheek, that if you are going to sin, make it a big sin.

So when we come to church: we begin by receiving. We receive from God’s word; we receive the declaration of his forgiveness; we receive his word; we receive at communion; we receive the presence of God – his Holy Spirit – to come and live in us.  

We’ve had an amazing service of choral evensong. But I have to confess that a few months before I came here to St Mary’s, I had two problems with choral evensong.
The first – and I am ashamed to say this - was because I was arrogant and judgmental. I remember sitting in a cathedral listening to a choir singing the Nunc dimittis, and thinking, ‘They’re singing it, and it is beautiful, but how many of them believe it?’ And I had another of those very sharp penetrating thoughts: ‘Forget about them. What about you?’
Who am I, who are you to pass judgement on the faith of another? The only person I can judge is myself, and most of the time I get that pretty wrong.
And my second problem was that I didn’t do anything in the service.
I have had the privilege of spending the last 10 days on a conference at St George’s House in Windsor Castle. Every evening, at 5.15, we had choral evensong in the chapel. And the only thing I did in that service was to sit when I needed to sit and stand when I needed to stand, and say the creed. But that, I have come to realise, is one of the glories of the service. This is the place where I have come first of all to receive. To receive from you – and I want to say thank you – but also to receive from God.

But I also want to issue a spiritual health warning. You give so much, week in and week out. And yes, I know (because you tell me) that you love singing, and being part of the choir – but if church is simply becoming the place where we come to give or to perform (and I now include myself as vicar in this), we are in serious danger of declaring the truth of the grace of God but also missing the truth of the grace of God. Before we give we do need to receive. We need to receive from God.

So can I urge you to realise again that it is not about you trying to get to know God, but it is about God who already knows you and who loves you. It is not about you trying to please God. Instead it is about first receiving from him. He gave the most precious thing that he has for you: his son. He longs to give himself to you. For me, that place of receiving is when I am often on my own with his word; It is when I come to services like this; it is when I hear the bible read and taught; it is when I am receiving communion

And while I appreciate that it is great for you to have your Sundays back for a few weeks, please don’t completely stop going to church. You don’t need to come here (although we would love to see you!). Go to a church near where you live or where you are on holiday; go to a church that is very different; and even if it is a rubbish service, still try and find something to receive: prayer, reading (word of God) or communion. It is not about what we can do for God. It is about what he has given to us.
The false teachers want to turn what could be an open family of people who know that they have nothing to offer but can only receive, into a club of like achieving people. Get so many marks and you are in. They want to turn a party that is open to everybody, into a party that is only open to people who can bring along a very expensive bottle of champagne.

So Paul is saying to them, in verses 12-20, please don't become like that. You haven’t done me any wrong, but if you go down the route of saying that you need to be circumcised or you need to keep special days in special ways, then you will do me wrong. You will exclude me. You will cut me out. Because, he says, I have nothing to bring to the party apart from my sinfulness and my inadequacy.

The thing about the gospel that Paul preaches, the gospel that the Galatians believed and that we have believed, is that you have got nothing to bring and everything to receive. That is what unites us in one family. We are not here because of our achievements, our religiousness, our knowledge, our moral success or even our ability to sing. We are here because we have realised that God knows us. We are here because we have chosen to receive the free gift of his love, forgiveness, of the Holy Spirit and of eternal life. And it is all gift.