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.