Psalm 47, Matthew 6:1-15
September 25, 2011
This is the second in a series of sermons on The Lord’s Prayer. Last week I gave you an introduction. Now we’re going to start looking at the various parts of this most amazing prayer! Last week we saw how the prayer was introduced in Luke’s Gospel, when the disciples said, “Lord, teach us how to pray.” Today I want you to see how it’s introduced by Matthew in his Gospel. Because I think it leads better into this first part.
In Matthew’s Gospel, the Lord’s Prayer comes in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount. And at this point, Jesus is kinda on a roll! He’s been telling them a lot of important things – about things they already knew. He said, “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets. I have come not to abolish them, but to fulfill them.” He then gave them a series of sayings in which he told them things they already knew, but then he gave them his take on them.
For example, he said, “You have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not kill…’ But I tell you whoever is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment, and whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says ‘You fool’ shall be liable to the lake of fire.”
Wow! That’s strong! But, is it just an exaggeration? Did he really mean that the council was going to have to institute an “Insult Violations Committee?” Or was Jesus simply demonstrating the importance of our attitudes in the way we act and speak. I think that’s part of it. After all, he began this sermon with the “Be-attitudes.” And that’s a lot of what this sermon is about. But that makes for some pretty “tough stuff” here. He said, “You have heard it that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist one who is evil. And if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the left also.”
This is about attitude. These things are about what’s inside us. Because Jesus knew that people can be righteous on the outside, while on the inside they’re being “eaten up” with anger, jealousy, envy, and all of those other “deadly sins.” Remember them? That’s why they’re “deadly!” The peace of God that Jesus wants for us is not about eliminating conflict on the outside, but about having the inside right.
Jesus then starts chapter 6 with these words. And I hope you see how this sets up his famous prayer! He says, “Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them.” Notice, he’s not saying there’s anything wrong with piety – which means “holy living.” He’s saying “Have it right on the inside.” Piety is not about a “show for others.” It’s about living for God!
At that point, he starts teaching them about prayer. He says, “Don’t pray in a way that brings attention to yourselves.” Now, of course we can inspire others by the way we pray aloud. And that’s good! But we should point them to God, not to ourselves! He emphasizes that by saying, “When you pray, go into your secret place.”
There was a great song that came out in the 90’s by a group called Sonic Flood. It was about this very thing. The words are, “In the secret, in the quiet place, in the stillness you are there. In the secret, in the quiet hour I wait, only for you, for I want to know you more.” I think that captures what Jesus is telling us. Prayer is about knowing God more. Is that what you want? Do you know God more and more when you pray?
Ok, so that’s how this prayer of our Lord is introduced. And what I want you to see in this first part is this sense of intimacy – intimacy with the almighty! “Pray like this,” Jesus told them. “Our Father who art in heaven…” This is about being closer to God. It’s about knowing God more. So Jesus calls God “Father.” In fact, that was his most frequent way of addressing God. He even used it occasionally in prayer with the word “Abba,” which was a very close family kind of word for “father.” It meant almost “daddy” in their world.
That’s the kind of family-like relationship Jesus was calling people into in his ministry. And I’m sure that had to have been shocking for the religious leaders of the time! “Father” was rarely used in the Old Testament to address God. The Old Testament view of God was one of an omnipresent, powerful creator. The way Jesus portrayed God as Father would have turned that understanding on its ear!
In the New Testament, the term is used all the time. The intimacy with God suggested by Jesus is a common understanding with all the New Testament writers. And of course, it’s common in the Christian world to this day. But, do we not forget that? Do we not have to be reminded that God wants that close fellowship with us? I know I do. It’s far to easy to become formulaic and “mechanical” in our prayers. Jesus says we need to strive to be in that place where we “want to know God more.”
The next thing I want you to see in this prayer is the contrast Jesus sets up in this first line. “Our Father, who art in heaven…” Next to the intimacy suggested in the word “Father,” Jesus places the infinite nature of God. This “Father” is the God of heaven – the “King of the Universe,” as many Jewish prayers begin. Notice, Jesus doesn’t say “Our Heavenly Father” here. That doesn’t have quite the same impact. It doesn’t portray this contrast as well. Instead, he says, “Our Father, Eternal God of heaven…” Do you see?
If you don’t get that contrast yet, look at the next phrase of this first sentence. “Our father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” “You are holy!” “In fact, you are so holy, even your name is holy!” Actually those good Jewish boys would understand that better than us. They believed in the sacredness of God’s name. This contrast would have been even deeper for them.
So, Jesus has said a lot here, in only one sentence. And notice that, so far, there is no focus on ourselves or our needs. Yet, think about how often that’s the first and sometimes the only thing in our prayers. Think about how often that’s the only motivation for our prayers. We pray when we need something!
Now Jesus continues this prayer in that same vein, keeping the focus on God and his kingdom. He knew the importance of that focus. He knew personally how important that was in our relationship with God. When we put the focus on God, when we get his perspective, when we take the focus off of ourselves, our lives, and our world, things change, don’t they? Our attitude changes! If all of our prayers started out like this prayer of Jesus, wouldn’t our lives and our spiritual perspective be different?
Something else happens here. When we start with the holiness and power of God, this next part becomes easier for us to say. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.” You’ve heard me say many times how that’s the hardest thing to pray, even though we say it every week! Well, I want you to notice that we don’t say it by itself. It goes with the first part – the part about God’s holiness. Because the more we remember God’s power and holiness, the easier it is for us to want God’s will. If we don’t think he has the power in our lives, we’re going to be reluctant to seek his will, aren’t we?
That’s often the problem. That’s what makes that phrase “Thy will be done” so hard by itself. Because we forget his power, don’t we? We forget his holiness. And when it’s hard for us to believe he has the power, it’s then hard to surrender our will to his. We want to “do it ourselves!” We don’t want to trust him. And we cling tightly to the reins of our lives.
So, one very important piece in this whole “seeking the will of God for our lives” thing, is to recognize his holiness. Jesus knew that. I believe it’s no coincidence that he put those two things together in this prayer! If this wasn’t one complete sentence – and it may well have been – it certainly flows as one complete thought. “Our Father, sovereign powerful king of the universe, you are so holy that even your name is holy. Let your kingdom come.”
Now just for a moment, let that last statement sink in. We’re asking for God’s kingdom to come on earth. What did Jesus mean by that? Did he mean the kingdom at the end of time? Was he talking about the future, when Jesus would reign on earth as king? Possibly. But these disciples didn’t know about that when he taught them this prayer. So even though that idea might have been in the background somewhere, it’s more likely that he was referring to “the kingdom” in a different way.
So think about this. What did Jesus often say about God’s kingdom? The kingdom of God is where? It’s among you. It’s in your midst. The prayer Jesus is teaching them is to seek God’s kingdom and his will here on earth, so much so that it becomes like it is in heaven. That’s almost an exaggeration. It doesn’t seem possible, does it? But Jesus is telling his people to seek that perspective. So, may we strive to seek and follow God’s will that much, that his kingdom in our midst and in our lives will reflect the sovereignty of God in heaven. Maybe that’s the hardest part of this prayer!
So, there’s a lot in this first sentence, isn’t there? The powerful, sovereign, holy, creator God is our loving father. When we know that, we can more readily and joyfully seek his kingdom and his will. So your assignment this week is to pray daily, which I hope you do anyway. But this week, begin each prayer with this first phrase, “Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name…” See how that affects your prayer life.
Prayer (With the Lord’s Prayer)
Eternal God, thank you for the prayer Jesus taught. Thank you that it points to your holiness and your steadfast love for us. Help us to seek your kingdom and your will for our lives. Teach us to be the kind of people you call us to be. For we pray in Jesus’ name, who taught us to pray, “Our Father…”