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Teach us to pray

"...there is no such thing as an unanswered prayer. The answer given may not be the one that we want or expect, but it is the answer in love of a Father who cares for each one of us."

Luke 11:1-13

St Luke’s Gospel is very much a Gospel of prayer. He’s not the only writer to include these familiar words of Jesus teaching his disciples how to pray - they’re also in Matthew 7 in a slightly longer and more familiar form.

St Luke, through the pages of his Gospel shows Jesus at prayer at the most important moments of his life - his baptism, before the call of the disciples, before Peter’s confession, at the Transfiguration, and at the Crucifixion. Luke of course also gives us the story of the neighbour knocking the door to wake up his friend that we’ve just read, along with the explanation concerning prayer that goes along with it.

"Teach us how to pray" is the request from Jesus’ disciples. It was a simple and fairly common request from a student to his teacher, and John had done something similar for his disciples. Jesus was never simpler and a more brilliant teacher than when he was teaching people how to pray.

How do you feel about prayer? More especially, how do you feel about how prayer is conducted within a service or fellowship meeting? Every preacher has his or her own way of offering prayer.

To some it’s a time of quiet meditation, to others it’s an opportunity to bare their soul - an emotional outpouring (you’ve only got to watch some TV evangelists at work to see what I mean). Some are short and to the point, others ramble on for what seems like eternity; some use the language of today, others prefer to use the language of the seventeenth century.

Is there a right or a wrong way?

Well, Jesus doesn’t really present us with a prayer here, more of a framework for prayer. We tend to use it as a complete prayer within our services, and one that is imprinted into our memory from childhood. There is a tendency to say it without even thinking about the words, which have become so familiar as to lose their freshness and meaning.

However, when the Churches have tried to bring the language of the Lord’s prayer up to date, there has often been great opposition to such change - a fear perhaps of losing something so familiar and precious, of having to relearn words which have become almost a part of the furniture of the building.

Yet the prayer which Jesus taught his disciples was never intended to be the quickly gabbled offering of words that it often is in our Churches and Chapels. What we have is more of a guideline, a series of headings to follow through as a framework for our prayer time, whether it be short or long. It calls for pauses, reflection, confession and re-commitment. Perhaps if it were used more in this fashion it would actually start to mean more to us - be less of a prayer said parrot-fashion, which is often how it comes across.

Though Luke’s version is not the version that we are more familiar with, it gives us all that we need to know about how to pray and what to pray for.

Firstly it begins by calling God "Father". This is a very personal response to the Creator of the Universe, but it is echoed throughout the New Testament.

In Galations 4 we read "Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, 'Abba, Father.' So you are no longer a slave, but a son; and since you are also a son, God has made you also an heir."

As we are free to address God as "Father" this should also hint to us that as we come to him in prayer we’re not trying to extract something from someone who is unwilling, but from a loving Father who is more than willing to supply his children’s needs. If you doubt this look to the second half of the reading when Jesus tells the story of the man who knocks on his neighbour’s door at midnight.

In the east hospitality is a sacred duty. It was not enough to put out a few scraps to greet a visitor, there had to be an adequate feast prepared and offered. Bread was a problem, because only enough for one day’s need was baked - for the simple reason that in that heat it soon went stale. No wonder this person panicked when a visitor turned up late at night and the cupboard was bare. His first thought was that he was bringing shame on his family for not providing what should have been there - that’s why he felt he had to disturb his neighbour at such an unearthly hour.

So he knocks on the door, again and again - the Greek word used here means "with shameless persistence" - until the neighbour makes his weary way to the door and gives him what is required.

That, says Jesus tells you something very important about prayer. Because if a disgruntled and half-asleep neighbour is willing eventually to give in to such persistence and give what is needed, how much more will God, who is a loving Father give to his children who ask.

Luke 10:13 "If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him."

We’re not of course talking about bribery here. I have a picture in my mind of the screaming child in a supermarket shouting out "Can I have an ice cream! I want an ice cream, I want an ice cream!" just as Mum or Gran is going through the checkout. Everyone is watching, and in exasperation they give in just to stop the embarrassment that the child is causing. That’s not the same thing as Jesus is talking about here. The neighbour had a need, not a want - and that’s why his request was finally met.

So we call God "Father". And in Hebrew the name means much more than just the title by which someone is known. It means the whole character of the person as it is revealed and known to us. Psalm 9:10 says "Those who know your name will trust in you," It means that those who know God as Father will gladly put their trust in him.

When we pray, says Jesus, we have the right to call our God "Abba... Father" but we must also recognise that he is our Heavenly Father and as such deserves the respect and reverence that’s His by right. Only when we place God our Heavenly Father in the right place in our hearts and in our prayers will the other things take their proper place.

"Hallowed be your name, your kingdom come,"

Prayer should also be concerned with all of life

It first of all covers our present need "Give us each day our daily bread". We are to pray for the needs of the day. This reflects back to the long years in the wilderness when Manna was provided for the people to eat -

Exodus 16: 13ff "That evening a lot of quails came and landed everywhere in the camp, and the next morning dew covered the ground. After the dew had gone, the desert was covered with thin flakes that looked like frost. The people had never seen anything like this, and they started asking each other, 'What is it?' Moses answered, 'This is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat. And he orders you to gather about two quarts for each person in your family—that should be more than enough.' They did as they were told. Some gathered more and some gathered less, according to their needs, and none was left over.Moses told them not to keep any overnight. 20 Some of them disobeyed, but the next morning what they kept was stinking and full of worms, and Moses was angry."

We are not asked to worry about the future, but to live each day at a time.

Our prayer should cover our own sinfulness "Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us."

Even the very best of us when we come in prayer are shown up as we really are when compared with the pure love of God, and we must acknowledge the great gulf which exists between what we are and what we could be. When we come to God in prayer we need to ask for forgiveness, but in order to receive that forgiveness we have to be prepared to do the same for others. This is a dynamic thing, forgiveness.

We can’t expect to be forgiven past sins when deep in our heart there are still hurts and far from loving thoughts about others. And that, if you stop to think about it, is quite a lot of food for thought. How often have you said the words of the Lord’s Prayer, and "Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us." When you know perfectly well that you want the first but can’t do the second.

Our prayer also looks to the future, and all the temptation that might come our way

"And lead us not into temptation"

The word temptation covers all manner of trials and tribulations that might hit us, every situation that might challenge our integrity and moral values. We may not be able to escape such situations, but with God’s help we can meet them without fear.

The importance of this framework that Jesus taught his disciples to use when they pray is that it gathers up in a few words all that we ought to pray for in the presence of God. For those who find praying difficult, find it hard to express in words what they feel in their hearts it is a prayer committed to memory that, used correctly, can say all that our hearts would express.

There is another important point in this reading, and one that Jesus was keen to stress when talking about prayer. "This" he says "This is the way, the pattern of your prayer. But more than that, you must know in your hearts that your prayer will be answered"

Jesus then tells the story of the two neighbours, and how after much persistence the door is opened. Jesus didn’t mean by this story that God, like a weary neighbour, could by the same means be made to change his mind. Rather that where two people have a relationship, one is unlikely to be put off by a delay or a first refusal where the desire is great and confidence firm enough in the other’s ability to give. Perhaps this too is our pattern for prayer.

Should we be this earnest in our prayer? Should we persist in prayer even when an answer seems far away because we know that our Heavenly Father knows our needs even before we ask, and He is generous with his love.

For this reason therefore there is no such thing as an unanswered prayer. The answer given may not be the one that we want or expect, but it is the answer in love of a Father who cares for each one of us.

"So I say to you; Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened."

 

 

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