We have come to the very heart of the Sermon on the Mount: the Lord’s Prayer. This isn’t at the center of this sermon by accident, but by necessity. Jesus begins the Sermon by talking about the way of the disciple—the one who is truly blessed is the one who is living life God’s way, by the power of his Spirit. Then he describes that life in greater detail, looking at specific cases and examples; as part of this, he teaches us how the Old Testament law relates to our lives as followers of Christ.
Such a life can only be lived by prayer, and in prayer, and through prayer; prayer is and must necessarily be at the heart of everything, because only the Spirit of God makes this possible. I said on the Beatitudes that we must be careful not to read them as law, because we can’t live up to their standard by our own effort; they describe the life the Holy Spirit is creating in us, by his power alone. If we would know the blessing they describe, we must begin and end by opening our hearts and minds to God in prayer.
And yet, even as I say this, that word “must” creates the danger of reading this passage—the Lord’s Prayer itself—as law. It’s subtler here than in the Beatitudes, but just as real a possibility. Jesus gives us this prayer as a model for our own prayer, and the easiest thing in the world would be to break it down into categories and say, “OK, when you pray, you need to cover these categories, in this way, in this order; go out and do it like this and you’ll be praying correctly.” That would be the easiest thing in the world, and yet it would be hard to miss the point of this prayer more spectacularly than that. Prayer is not just a matter of piling up the right words or the right subjects in the right order until we achieve the desired result.
Indeed, Jesus makes that clear in his brief introduction on prayer, verses 7-8. We see an example of the kind of thing he’s talking about in 1 Kings 18, as the prophets of the Canaanite god Ba’al dance around and cry out and even cut themselves, over and over, for hours and hours and hours, in an effort to compel him to respond. Kenneth Bailey offers another, from a nineteenth-century note written by a Persian scholar to an American medical missionary in Beirut:
A souvenir to the esteemed spiritual physician and religious philosopher, his Excellency, the only and most learned who has no second in his age, Dr. Cornelius VanDyke, the American. As a souvenir presented to his loftiness and goodness and to him that is above titles, who is a propagator of knowledge and the founder of perfections, and a possessor of high qualities and owner of praiseworthy character, the pole of the firmament of virtues and the pivot of the circle of sciences, the author of splendid works and firm foundations, who is well versed in the understanding of the inner realities of soul and horizons, who deserves that his name be written with light upon the eyes of the people rather than with gold on paper, at Beirut, in the month of Rabia, in the year 1891, by the most humble.
Dr. Bailey drily comments, “I trust that Dr. VanDyke was suitably impressed!” But if that’s how you communicated with another person when you were giving them a small gift, how much more would you do that with God, especially when you wanted something? And to that, Jesus says, “No. That’s not the point at all.”
That said, he’s also not forbidding long prayers or written prayers; if that were the case, why would he have given us a model prayer here? And what would we make of the fact that Jesus himself often prayed for hours? Again, this isn’t law, because law is about the outward form, and Jesus is rejecting the whole idea that if you just have the right outward form, the right words and the right structure, then you have prayed correctly. That assumes we have to say the right things in the right way for God to hear us and know what we need—and that if we can get him to hear us, he’ll give us our request; to which Jesus says, “This isn’t about informing the Father of anything. He already knows what you need.”
If that’s the case, some might wonder, then what is prayer about? Well, what is any conversation about between two people who love each other? When I talk to my wife, there are some things I tell her that she doesn’t know, to be sure; but much of it isn’t news to her at all. When I tell her I love her, she already knows that—but I need to say it, and she needs to hear it. Expressing it is part of the thing itself. When I talk about the things that are bothering me, or that I’m happy about, or when I thank her for things she’s done, she knows much of that too—much of it I’ve said before; but I need to say it, because it’s where I am at that point and what matters to me, and she needs to hear it so she can share it with me. Relationship requires words, even if only to express what both of us already know; we need to speak, and we need to know we are heard.
So it is with prayer; we need to talk to God because we need to say what’s on our hearts, and also because what we say shapes our hearts. Thus Jesus in this prayer lays out things that we need to say, not because God demands them or because he’s somehow restricted if we don’t say them, but for our own sake; because we need to learn to mean them, if we don’t already. We also need to learn to listen to God, because like any good conversation, prayer is not a monologue; God answers us, not just by giving us what we ask—what we normally mean by “answers to prayer”—but by talking back to us.
That begins with Scripture. In Luke, Jesus gives a shorter version of this prayer in response to his disciples—they make a request, and this is his response. He gives us the Lord’s Prayer as an answer to prayer. All Scripture is like that, in that all Scripture is God’s word given to us, and the Holy Spirit speaks to us through all of it. We tend to think of prayer as us talking to God and reading the Bible as something else again, but in truth, both are parts of the ongoing conversation we are always having with God; when we read the Bible, that’s part of our prayer, and we ought to approach it in that spirit, in the expectation that he will speak to us through his word.
That’s not the only way he speaks to us, though. If we believe that God is Lord in every place and every moment, and that his Spirit is at work everywhere and in everything that happens, why shouldn’t we expect him to speak to us at any moment and from any angle? As the late British writer Malcolm Muggeridge put it, “All happenings, great and small, are parables whereby God speaks. The art of life is to get the message.” We’re like travelers rowing up a jungle river; at any moment, one of those logs up ahead could suddenly open an eye and a long mouth full of teeth. Look out—it’s alive!
As the Session, we’re working on articulating a vision statement and strategic plan for this congregation; one of our goals is to make this much more of a praying church than we currently are. We’re putting some things in motion already to work on that, and we have some other ideas we’re developing; but as we were discussing this, one statement kept coming up: “We need to learn how to pray.” I listened to that, and then later I remembered that in Luke, the disciples make a slightly different request to Jesus: not “Teach us how to pray,” but “Teach us to pray.” The first is a request for information and understanding; the second means, “Help me do this.” Of course, learning how is still part of that picture, and we’ll be spending the next five weeks living in this prayer line by line, much as we did through the Beatitudes, but none of it means much if we don’t follow it up, together, by going out and praying.
In that spirit, then, I’d like to close by giving you all some homework, two assignments. First, expect to hear from God this week. Listen for his voice, and expect to hear him; note down what you hear. Maybe you want to carry a little notebook with you this week, if you can. If you’re not sure it’s God, note it down anyway; check it against Scripture, and if you feel you need a little guidance, please feel free to call or e-mail me, or one of the elders, or one of our prayer warriors—I think especially of Jean Ansell, Mary Ann Cox, and Nancy Shaffer. But listen carefully, with open ears and open hearts.
And second, please pray the Lord’s Prayer every day this week, but with one addition: pray every part of it for our church. You can do this as simply as adding the phrase “in our church” to every line—“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name in our church,” and so on—or you can word it your own way, but please pray every part of it specifically for our church each day this week. Please make a point of taking home the prayer insert, and as you pray this prayer for our church, please think of some of the specific things on that list, and maybe come back to them. What would it mean to pray that God’s name would be hallowed in our preschool? Anna’s brother’s medical debt was forgiven; how does that change how we pray “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors”? Open yourself up—pray this prayer specifically for us; pray it for yourself. Listen for God to answer. See what he does.