Lord, Teach Us to Pray – September 18, 2011
Psalm 62:1-8, Luke 11:1-4
September 18, 2011
We’re looking today at The Lord’s Prayer. These are arguably the most often repeated words in history of the English language, with the possible exception of the words, “Would you like fries with that?” (OR how about “It’s yet another sell-out at Citizen’s Bank Park!”)
Seriously, though, just think how many Christians over the past two thousand years have prayed that prayer weekly – and many of them daily! I suppose our Catholic brothers and sisters account for the greatest number of repetitions, especially when they pray the rosary. (There are something like 20 repetitions of the “Our Father” in that sequence!)
However, some feel that such “repetition” takes away the meaning of something. And I’m sure there’s some truth in that. After a while it certainly can become just a mindless intoning of words. That’s why it’s good to have sermons like this one from time to time. That’s why we have studies on the Lord’s Prayer. Such things make us think about what we’re saying!
But I don’t want to dismiss the repetition part of this! There’s something to be said for the devotion expressed in the simple repeating of these words. There’s a concentration on God in that act of saying these words. There’s a sense of honor in the veneration of this most sacred prayer – a prayer given to us by Jesus himself. So it’s not a bad thing. (There’s much worse things we could be saying!) So don’t worry if you feel you’re just repeating these words! You’re honoring the one who taught all his disciples to pray like this! But! Plan on being here for the next three weeks as we take the time to think about what we’re saying! Because this is amazing stuff! This is revolutionary! And some of it is very difficult!!
There are two places in the Gospels where we find the Lord’s prayer. It’s first found in “the Sermon on the Mount” in Matthew 6. And then it’s found in Luke’s Gospel. But that case it’s well after Luke’s “Readers Digest” version of “the Sermon on the Mount” in chapter 6. We find his version of the prayer here in chapter 11.
Now, does that mean Luke is saying Jesus didn’t use this prayer in “the Sermon on the Mount?” We might wonder about that, but I don’t think it would be true. As I said, Luke’s is the “paired down” version of that Sermon. He didn’t include a lot of things that Matthew did in his longer version! So he could well have taught this prayer to the crowd at that time, and then later offered the same words to his disciples when they asked. (That makes sense. After all. It’s a good prayer!)
The other thing I just want to mention here, is that some have called Luke’s version “the Sermon on the Plain.” But that’s really a misnomer. Luke says that Jesus was on the mountain with his disciples, and then he came down “and stood on a level place.” But that doesn’t mean he came all the way down, away from the mountain, and stood on a wide open plain. It simply means he came down to a level place on the mountain! So I don’t want to get sidetracked by any of those little differences. They’re just not that important!
The one I do want you to notice is the way the sermon is introduced by the two writers. Matthew says, “Seeing the multitudes, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him, and he opened his mouth and taught them.” We could spend all morning talking about that. Because it’s “chock full” of rabbinical references! The “sitting down,” the “disciples coming to him,” and the “opening his mouth and teaching” are all about what a rabbi would do in a teaching time with his disciples! And as you’ve heard me say before, Matthew is writing his Gospel to a Jewish audience. He was attempting to prove to the Jewish people that Jesus was the Messiah as foretold in their scripture. So putting him in a Jewish context, having him act and teach like a Rabbi, is a huge thing to Matthew and to his readers!
In Luke’s Gospel, the disciples have witnessed Jesus praying, and they ask him to teach them how to do it. And that’s actually the emphasis of both of these accounts. Even though the two Gospel writers are writing for two different audiences, the purpose here is the same. This is a prayer that is a lesson about prayer. In both Gospels, Jesus is trying to get the disciples to see what our prayers should be like. He’s trying to teach them about the attitude of prayer, and about the intimacy of prayer.
In Matthew, Jesus is warning the people about the wrong attitude of prayer. He says “Don’t stand on the street corner.” “Don’t heap up empty phrases.” “Prayer is not about calling attention to yourself.” Of course most of us don’t stand in the market place and pray out loud. Sometimes in meetings we might be tempted to pray in a way that puts the attention on us. But most of the time we pray, that’s not a problem.
However, even in our personal times of prayer, we can still end up focusing on ourselves, can’t we? Simply in the way we speak to God, it can be hard for us to concentrate on his presence. It’s way too easy to end up praying in such a way that we’re just sort of “talking to ourselves.” That happens to all of us, doesn’t it? Concentrating on God is hard. But it’s very important! I find that starting prayer with silence is helpful in doing that. You may have other ways. But that’s so important we make that connection!
The other way we can be focusing on ourselves in prayer is in what we pray for. Too often it’s all about our own needs and problems. And in terms of those needs and problems, we often focus on ourselves being “in charge!” “Lord, here’s what I’d like you to do.” Or it’s “Here’s what I’m going to do. Please bless me.” Let me suggest that one way we might keep ourselves from that self focus is to pray first for the needs of others. But again, even that’s not making a “To do list” for God. It’s a matter of laying our petitions at his feet. It’s asking for God’s presence and peace, rather than telling him how he should act!
In the next few weeks, we’re going to look a little closer at this prayer. And we’re going to find, at the very least, that it has none of that self focus! Very quickly we’ll see that it’s “You are holy, God.” “Let your will be done.” And that’s one of the hard parts! It’s hard to be sincere about that! If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll realize that it’s our will that we most care about! It’s hard to give that up. And yet we pray those words every week! “…Thy will be done.”
The other thing we’re going to see throughout this prayer is that it’s a guide. It contains a number of the various aspects of prayer that we need to think about when we pray. Years ago I heard a great acronym for the various important parts of prayer. It’s the word “ACTS.” And it stands for “Adoration,” “Confession,” “Thanksgiving,” and “Supplication.” (I’ve asked Donna to print that at the bottom of the Order of Worship, so you’ll have it.) That’s a great reminder for the kinds of things we need to be doing to have a healthy prayer life!
Above all, throughout this prayer, we’re going to see that Jesus is telling us that prayer is personal. In Luke, the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray because they saw him praying. Jesus was making the connection with the Father. And they wanted that! So Jesus taught them this prayer. And in Luke he then told them about the relationship aspect of prayer. He compared it to a man who comes at night to his friend in need of food. The man will help him because they are close friends. And it’s the same with God. He tells how the Father wants to give good things to his children. What we need to remember about prayer is that there is so much God wants for us, if only we will come to him and share ourselves in that personal way.
In our Old Testament reading, the psalmist tells us, “For God alone my soul waits in silence… Trust in him at all times. Pour your heart out before him.” That’s the kind of relationship God wants to have with us. He doesn’t want a “stilted conversation” with us. He doesn’t want a formalized prayer. He wants the personal intimacy of a good friend, This prayer is a good guide to keep us on that track. He wants us to pour our hearts out to him. He wants that intensity, that passion, that devotion.
So my challenge to you is this. As we look in greater depth at this prayer for the next several weeks, take time in your own prayer life to concentrate on that intimacy. Pray consistently. But pray to God as Father and close friend. Practice pouring your heart out to him. Wait on the Lord, as the psalmist says. Spend time in silence, and listen! Strive to draw closer to God. And pray this prayer daily!
Eternal Father, we do forget to think of your presence. We do tend to think only of ourselves in prayer. We tend to pray mostly when we need something. But what we really need is you! As we look at Jesus’ prayer, help us to know you better. Help us to know your presence in our lives, that we may live our lives as one continual prayer. Now hear us as we share that prayer that Jesus taught all his disciples… “Our Father…”