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Learning to Pray

‘Lord, teach us to pray…’ That’s what the disciples ask of Jesus at the beginning of the gospel reading this morning. (Luke 11.1-13) Teach us to pray. Have you ever asked to be taught to pray? If you grew up in a Christian home going to church, Sunday school or a Christian organisation, you may well have been encouraged to pray in the morning, at night and to say grace before meals. There may be certain prayers that you were taught to say which have stuck with you. Above all, you were taught ‘The Lord’s Prayer’. It so familiar that it rolls off the tongue when we recite it together in church and there is a real danger that we say it without thinking repeating the words parrot fashion.
But it is unlikely that when Jesus answered his disciples request and began to teach them to pray, that he simply gave them a few set prayers to pray. For Jesus, prayer was a lot more than just a form of words. It was about a close an intimate relationship that he shared with the father. He would often withdraw to lonely places apart from the crowds to pray. He would rise early to make quality time for prayer. John 17 gives us an indication of the kind of praying Jesus did as he prayed for his disciples before his death. For Jesus, the unity he had with God was expressed through prayer. The disciples saw this and wanted it for themselves. So, they asked him: ‘Lord, teach us to pray.
The answer Jesus gives is recognisable as what we call ‘The Lord’s Prayer’. This version recorded by Luke is strikingly simple and short although some ancient copies of Luke and the prayer as written in Matthew’s gospel (Matthew 6.9-13) are much closer to what we are familiar with. Did Jesus ever intend these words to be recited as a single prayer as the church has done down the centuries? I have never been very sure on that and there are many Christians who resist using it in this way for that reason. It can instead be thought of as a pattern for our prayers, a framework for prayer. Jesus was introducing a new way of praying which was distinct from that of the hypocrites who prayed to be seen on street corners. (Matthew 6.5) It was not praying ‘to’ or ‘about’ oneself as did the pharisee who went into the temple to pray along with the tax collector. (Luke 18.11) It was prayer which started with honouring God and his kingdom first and then trusting him for daily bread, forgiveness and being kept spiritually safe.
We can break the Lord’s prayer into six parts. The first three are about God and the second three about ourselves. If we are serious about obeying Christ’s teaching on prayer, then we would do well to make sure we engage with God on these six areas.
1. Father. In the best attested copies of Luke’s gospel, there is just this one word of address for God. From earliest times the words ‘our’ and ‘which art in heaven’ were added. Father is the key word here. Although it was rarely used by Jews as an address for God, the idea that God was their father was embedded in the old testament (Deuteronomy 32.6 for instance) Jesus encourages his followers to see God in this way; as our father and us as his children. Even though there are plenty of rotten fathers in the world making for bad associations for many children today, the parent child relationship of which Jesus speaks remains the basis for our prayers. In a proper child parent relationship, there is love, trust and sacrifice and this is the basis for the Christians relationship with God nurtured through prayer. It is a distinctive relationship that Jesus teaches unlike that of his native Judaism or Islam.
2. Hallowed be your name. Holy be your name. the Welsh translation makes this clearer: ‘sancteiddier dy enw’. If calling God ‘father’ or even ‘daddy’ seems a bit over familiar, this corrects that. In ancient times, a person’s name was much more than just a label. It communicated something essential about a person’s nature. In the old testament, God is referred to as ‘Yahweh’ often translated ‘the Lord’. It was a name too holy to be spoken of. So, Jesus reminds us that we pray to a holy God whom we honour and revere above all things. There should be nothing casual or profane about our prayers.
3. Your Kingdom come. Jesus speaks often of the kingdom. This is the rule or dominion of God: God’s will. Last week, for good or ill, we have changed prime minister. There is a clear change of message; of intent. The kingdom of God is about God’s message and intentions being seen in the hearts and lives of those who will receive it. Notice that the Lord’s prayer does not pray for church, the world, the sick and the dead. It prays for the kingdom to come. When you pray for your community, family and friends, do you pray for the kingdom to come in them? Do you pray that they may know God’s just and gentle rule in their hearts? Where the kingdom has fully come, there is true healing and wholeness.
4. Give us each day our daily bread. Jesus now turns from God centred prayer to focus on everyday needs. He knows that our lives are made up of dealing with practical everyday worries and cares like trying to get in touch with banks and utility companies, find parking spaces and organise the grandchildren. He knows that we get worried and stressed by these things, so he encourages us to bring them to God in prayer. Nothing is too ordinary or worldly for our prayers. We can bring it all to the father. When we do this, we realise and recognise that actually, all the things necessary for daily living are really gifts from him for which we should be giving thanks.
5. Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us. Repentance is important. We all sin and fall short of the glory of God. (Romans 3.23) Yes, our lives may not look so bad when we compare them to villains. We should not be comparing them to villains but to Christ…not just our actions but our thoughts and words too. Through Jesus, there is full and free forgiveness, but we must be forgiving too. Last week, there was a powerful BBC news report by Orla Gearing on drug barrens in Columbia who have been converted to Christ. While they believed they had received God’s forgiveness for heinous crimes including murder and their lives were being changed for good, it was hard for the community to forgive.
6. And lead us not into temptation. This can also be translated: ‘Do not bring us to the time of trial’. Would God ever lead us into temptation? Surely, it’s the devil who tempts us. Well yes…but we can all find ourselves in places of temptation and in times of trial. It is then that we need God’s help most. Was it not the prayer Peter should have prayed as he lingered around Caiaphas’ courtyard while Jesus was being accused inside? Early on, the more positive phrase: ‘Deliver us from evil’ was added. Notice how we are not asked to pray for our physical safety but for our spiritual protection. Let us make sure we do just that.
In the Lord’s prayer, Jesus teaches us about the way we should pray. When do say it as a prayer, let try to do it reflectively? But can we also use it as profound teaching about the nature of Christian prayer? Recalling the one we pray to is both most holy and our father who deserves our praise. We ask for his kingdoms rule in our lives and those of others. Yes, we can bring everything to him in prayer with thanksgiving. We pray for our forgiveness while not holding grudges against others and we pray for our spiritual protection.
Above all, please keep praying. That’s the essence of Jesus’ words which follow; the parable of the friend at midnight, ask, seek, knock and the father who gives good gifts especially the gifts of the spirit. Prayer will not necessarily make everything go right, but it is the channel through which God choses to work in our world.
Trinity 6 28.07.2019

Rev Jonathan Smith

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