Monday, February 18, 2008

The Prayer Jesus Gives Us

The Prayer Jesus Gives us
Matthew 6:5-15
February 17, 2008
2nd Sunday in Lent

© 2008 by Christopher D. Drew

Sermon Focus: The prayer life of the church finds its source in God, who by grace desires to be near to us and to hear both our praises and our pleas. Our prayer life, however, is clouded by our modern misconceptions about what prayer is, coupled with our own false starts and fears.

Sermon Function: To encourage listeners to pursue a life of prayer, and to provide insights from Matthew 6:5-15 for how we might structure our prayers.

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One of the constant frustrations many Christians feel, including myself, is not really knowing how to pray. I have heard many times, in church life and in seminary, that prayer comes only with great difficulty. “My words aren’t adequate,” says one person. “I’m not good at it,” says another. Yet another says, “I don’t pray because I’m not worthy enough.”

For those who find have struggled to maintain their lives of prayer, there is frequently another kind of problem. Many find that their prayers end up just being laundry lists of requests. And of course, one of the most common complaints is that a person’s prayer life is reduced to bargaining – that is, the person only seems to discover the acute need to prayer when something huge is at stake. “Oh God, if only you would do [promise here], I promise that I’ll faithfully attend worship each Sunday.”

This week, we get some guidance from the place where we should usually turn first, Scripture! As we continue with our Lenten series on spiritual disciplines, I’ve been eagerly waiting for the opportunity to preach on this text, which is about prayer.

Let’s listen to God’s Word to us.

[Read Scripture - Matthew 6:5-15]

Advent Disciplines – Prayer

This past week, almost 70 people came to a kickoff our joint Advent Series on Spiritual Disciplines for our congregation and the congregation of First Presbyterian Church in Corpus Christi. What a great time we had! I was particularly pleased to see so many familiar faces in the crowd. Bob Malsack, Sara, and I presented our thoughts on worship and its rhythm, practical guidance for making our worship more meaningful, and comments about how we can extend our worship into our everyday living.

This week, the topic is prayer. Our scripture text from Matthew is actually a portion of the lectionary reading for Ash Wednesday. Here we receive Jesus’ words about prayer. And you may have noticed that the text is organized into two big chunks. The first chuck tells us what we should not do when in prayer. The second chunk with what we ought to do.

Prayer is the lifeblood of the Christian, and an incredibly important privilege. And I do mean it is a privilege. As created beings, made in the image of our heavenly Father, we are encouraged to actually speak with Him. What a great privilege! It should inspire awe in us. More often than not, however, it inspires feelings of inadequacy and even fear. But Jesus, our Savior, here tells, in very practical terms, how to become more fully engaged pray-ers. And as I’ve read about this text and prepared to write this sermon, I have to tell you how exciting it is to once again revisit these familiar words with fresh eyes. I hope in some way that I might let you see these words with fresh eyes as well – because what we have here in our text is solid gold assurance and encouragement in prayer, if we only open our eyes and take it in.

Part One – What Not To Do

A couple of things can be said about Jesus’ admonition to pray in private. First, it would have been the custom at the time to pause during the course of daily life to offer up prayers. In particular, pious Jews at this time would have stopped what they were doing to offer up specific prayers at about three p.m. each day – the time when sacrifices were made at the temple.

Jesus doesn’t very much like this practice, even through it was common. Private prayers given in public had two audiences – God and everybody else who might notice the pray-er. And that’s the rub. For Jesus, prayer to God should be offered to God alone. As Dale Bruner notes, “Prayer is not a form of evangelism, addressed to other people. Prayer is addressed to God, exclusively.”1 No mixed audiences. Jesus is of the opinion that prayer is to be addressed solely to God. To do otherwise runs the risk of ostentation, of trying to look good, to look pious, to be, in some fashion, the object of admiration and worship ourselves. That’s a non-starter, says Jesus, “Go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matt 6:6 NRSV).

After making it clear that prayer is most appropriately offered to God alone and in private, Jesus then makes some statements about the words we use. Specifically – You don’t need to use a lot of them. Why would Jesus say something like this?

This is the first of two “antirules” for prayer. The first addresses an issue that certainly was a problem among pagan religious traditions during this time – use a whole bunch of words to try to demonstrate your piety to God, in order to convince God to grant your request, which can have the effect of reducing God to a grudging giver.2 No, says Jesus, don’t babble on in prayer. Keep is short and simple.

The next “antirule” is this: “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him (Matt 6:8 NRSV). The obvious response to this saying is: So why pray at all? If God already knows everything, why bother?

The fact that he knows everything ought to be liberating for us. The reason our closest relationships with our closest friend, family members, and spouses are the closest is because these people know us the best. We can tell people in our closest circle almost anything. Because God does know everything, we ought to feel encouraged to approach him with everything that might be weighing on our minds.3

Keep it short, says Jesus, and don’t worry too much about the content, because God is closer than your closest friend. You really can share anything with Him. What a liberating thing! The quality of prayer isn’t something you can calculate by worldly standards like word count or word choice. Just be honest.

Martin Luther put it this way:
“The man who is serious in his intention and takes pleasure in prayer neither knows nor feels any toil and trouble; he simply looks at his need, and he has finished singing or praying the words before he has a chance to turn around. In other words, prayers ought to be brief, frequent, and intense.”4
No need to babble on, says Jesus, and feel free to talk about anything.

Part Two – The Model for Prayer

We recited this next part of our Scripture today earlier in our worship. This is the Lord’s Prayer. Having given us a couple of things to avoid – don’t use lots of empty words, and you Father already knows – Jesus then gives us a model for prayer. He says, “Pray then in this way” in verse nine. We could also translate this bit, “Pray like this.”

Following this are an address, three petitions about God, and three petitions regarding our needs.

“Our Father in heaven,” is the opening address. It is a short opening, as you might expect given what Jesus just said about wordiness. But the statement is actually a tremendous gift. You see, Jesus is God’s only Son. We are God’s children by adoption, by God’s grace. So here Jesus is inviting us to pray to God as if he were our own Father. God, then, is the Father all. With this simple phrase we become a member of the divine family. What an amazing gift!5

The other thing to notice about this opening address is the Jesus’ use of the word “our.” The Lord’s Prayer may be said individual, but the use of the word “our” reminds us that our prayer is a prayer not just for me, Christopher Drew, but a prayer for the entire community.

God, Please Be God

The first petition is then raised. “Hallowed be your name.” To be hallowed is to be set apart from the rest. I like Dale Bruner’s view on this. To be hallowed is to be made central, the central focus of our prayer and our lives.6 Here we ask God to be who God is – Holy, and the central focus of our lives.

We then ask for God’s kingdom to come. This is the Kingdom that we’re talking about – the one that comes on the last day, when Jesus returns in glory. This is actually a big deal – an “intense” request, to paraphrase Martin Luther. This is a prayer for the replacement of our current reality and history with something entirely new from God.

“Your will be done,” is the next petition asking God to be God. Let your will be done, Lord, as you want it to be done. “On earth as it is in heaven,” applies to the entire first three petitions. Let your name be hallowed here on earth as it is in heaven. As your kingdom is known in heaven, let it be so also on earth. As you will is executed in heaven, let you will prevail over the earth.

In each of the three petitions, then, we are asking God to be who God is, and to do whatever it is God wants to do. Be the central focus, God. Be the one who brings the kingdom to full fruition. Let your will be enacted. The first three petitions are all about God being God.

Our Needs

The next three petitions address critical human needs. Not personal needs, but needs that all humans have.

“Give us this day our daily bread.” Another way to translate this is “give us bread today for tomorrow.” We have the critical need for sustenance each day, and by this prayer we ask for that need to be met. I think that this is a very challenging petition for us, however, given that none of us likely has to worry much about where the next meal will come. The “our” of this petition then becomes very important. If we are confident that we know where our next meal will come from, then the only real honest way of praying this petition is by remember those in our community and in our world who do not have such luxury, and for whom the next day’s meal is never a certainty. When we pray for God to give us our daily bread, we are praying not just for ourselves, but on behalf of the entire community.

Debts and debtors. This is another incredible part of the prayer Jesus gives us. You see, by the very fact that we are sinful people, we stand in debt with God. We need forgiveness. This petition, that our debts be forgiven, means that we are asking God for an amazing grace – the grace of having our debts written off the divine balance sheet. This is an audacious request – as audacious as someone calling Citibank and asking them to forget that you have an outstanding balance. That kind of thing just isn’t done, but with God, Jesus encourages us to ask for such forgiveness. And we are also reminded in this section that our forgiveness is consequent on our forgiveness of others.

And finally, “Do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one” (Matt 6:13 NRSV). We are all the time surrounded by temptation and trials. We are here asking God to preserve us from the worst of these, and to “rescue us,” perhaps more literally “snatch us up”7 from the evil one. Bruner sums this petition up nicely, “Dear Father, please lead us in such a way that we will be able to resist the temptations that both consciously and unconsciously surround us; please constantly swoop down and rescue us from all the wiles of the evil one and all his evil works – we need your help.”8

Those are the six petitions of the prayer. With the first three, we humbly ask God to be who God is. Only after this do we move on to our own communities needs. The need to be fed. “Please give us the food so that we can stand up; please give us forgiveness so that we can stand up straight.”9 And finally, once we’re standing up straight, lead us forward as only You can.

Concluding Remarks

This is a prayer, friends, about God, and about us. It is not a personal prayer where we present God with our list of things. It is a prayer we say on behalf of the whole community, even as we pray it in the locked closet away from the crowds.

The Lord’s Prayer is an outline. You can shape a prayer like it using words that you create. But when those words are lacking, you’re more than welcome to simply recite the very words Jesus gives us.

I hope, by spending some time in greater detail with this wonderful gift of a prayer that we often take for granted, that you might have some new insights into how it is structured and what really we’re asking for when we say it. I also hope that you will join us for another engaging discussion about prayer this coming Wednesday at First Presbyterian Church, Corpus Christi, as we continue our Lenten series on spiritual disciplines. Let us pray.

Father in Heaven, we ask you again to be who you are, the central focus of our lives. We ask that your kingdom come sooner rather than later, so that our world might be transformed according to your heavenly will. Sustain us each day with those things we need, especially those of us who are at immediate risk. Let your forgiveness rain down and drown out our sin. Help us share your forgiveness with others. Lead us forward, we pray, and carry us over the traps dug for us by the adversary. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

Given at First Presbyterian Church, Portland, Texas.

1Bruner, Frederick. Matthew: A Commentary: The Christbook, Matthew 1-12. Dallas: Word Publishing, 1987, p. 106.

2Ibid., p. 235.


4Luther, Martin. The Sermon on the Mount (Sermons). Vol. 21 of Luther’s Works, p. 142-143.

5Brunner, op. cit., p. 239.

6Ibid., p. 241.

7Ibid., p. 255.


9Ibid., p. 252.

My Cute Buddie

I found this amongst some older photos. Jodi and I hanging out.

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