"The Lord’s Prayer brings the whole of life into the presence of God, and brings the whole of God into the whole of life."
Read Matthew 6:5-15
I’ve always been a little unclear as to how I was supposed to look at the Lord’s Prayer – is it a complete prayer that I should use regularly as presented, or is it maybe more of a general pattern for our prayer, a guide to how we should plan our prayer life…… Or is it both?
One thing you can definitely say about this prayer is that it is short – short on flowery language and short on waffle, but it packs such a lot into just over 50 words. Is Jesus trying to tell his disciples something here? According to Luke (Luke 11:1-4) this conversation was in response to a request to teach them a prayer as John the Baptist had done for his disciples.
Why did they want him to teach them a prayer? That might seem like an odd question, but the fact is Jews had plenty of good quality prayers and a strict pattern of prayer, at the third, sixth and ninth hour of every day. Prayer was and is at the centre of their day. The Shema is a famous daily prayer, recited at the beginning and end of daylight, a great prayer based upon Deuteronomy 6 which at its simplest states
"Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength."
There were many others which formed the liturgy at the synagogue and more which covered all aspects of daily life. In their heads the disciples knew the words of so many prayers, and yet they wanted something new in the light of their relationship with Jesus.
Matthew shows that there were some aspects of Jewish prayer which Jesus was concerned about. A tendency to want to let everyone know what they were doing (an outward show of piety) rather than prayer being an intimate conversation, and the length and wordiness of some prayers. "It’s not the words and being seen that are important." says Jesus. "Cut out the babbling! It’s the heart and soul that’s behind the words that matters!"
And there was a fair bit of babbling when it came to prayers. Jesus singles out the pagans, who can provide us with some great examples, but it was also a fault with the Jews and, truth be told a problem with some people today who like to shower God with fancy ‘religious’ words and titles.
Here’s a typical Egyptian prayer, to Amun-Ra
"HAIL to thee, Amun-Ra, Lord of the thrones of the earth, the
oldest existence, ancient of heaven, support of all things;
Chief of the gods, lord of truth; father of the gods, maker of men and beasts and herbs; maker of all things above and below;
Deliverer of the sufferer and oppressed, judging the poor;
Lord of wisdom, lord of mercy; most loving, opener of every eye, source of joy, in whose goodness the gods rejoice, thou whose name is hidden.
Thou art the one, maker of all that is, the one; the only one; maker of gods and men; giving food to all.
Hail to thee, thou one with many heads; sleepless when all others sleep, adoration to thee."
I think that’s called covering all the bases!
In 1 Kings 18 the prophets of Baal were having a hard time contacting him – or maybe he was just on an extended lunch break – so they tried some different tactics.
Then they called on the name of Baal from morning till noon. "O Baal, answer us!" they shouted. But there was no response; no one answered. And they danced around the altar they had made. At noon Elijah began to taunt them. "Shout louder!" he said. "Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or travelling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened."
So they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed. Midday passed, and they continued their frantic prophesying until the time for the evening sacrifice.
What do you have to do to get your god to sit up and listen to you? Do you start quiet and then start shouting? Do you think up as many fancy titles as possible to try and appease him? And if that fails do you just shout louder and louder and start getting physical? Does it take a blood bath to get your god’s attention?
The Jews themselves were, as I mentioned, also prone to going a little over the top in their prayers, although to be honest I’ve heard similar from preachers in this town.
This is part of a famous Jewish prayer, again trying to get God’s attention:
"Blessed, praised and glorified, exalted, extolled and honoured, magnified and lauded be the name of the Holy One.."
Again, I think there’s a little of the "covering all bases" here.
You see, one of the problems with prayer is that it can be sometimes confusing. How do we know that we’re using the right form of words? How do we know that God is listening? Why would he even bother to listen to us, and how do we know that he will answer our prayer?
One of the reasons that the Jews (and pagans) tried to cover all the bases in the way they addressed their gods was that there was a real fear – firstly that they might not be listening, and secondly that they might be angry with the one praying.
They had to say the right words/shout/dance/prophesy/do something to be sure in their mind that they were doing this right; otherwise the gods might be angry with them, refuse their requests or even punish them.
Is that fear still with us today? Do we still have those worries about prayer – that we’re not doing it right, that God might not hear us, he’s angry with us, or worse that he simply won’t answer? How do we address those fears? Well, it rather depends on our understanding of the God we’re praying to.
Jesus had an answer to that one:
"Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him."
Jesus tells us not to worry, that God knows what we need even before we ask, and there’s no need for all that babbling and shouting! And there’s more, because how does Jesus tell the disciples to begin? "Our father in heaven, hallowed be your name…"
No babbling, no verbal diarrhoea, no need! Just "Our father in heaven…"
"Our Father…!" What is Fatherhood all about? It’s about a relationship, in this case a relationship between God and humankind, based upon the love of a father for his child.
Let’s backtrack a little…
The disciples asked Jesus for a prayer, and Jesus may have done something rather interesting – taken the familiar and transformed it. It’s something he did a lot. The parables he told took illustrations from life in order to make a spiritual point.
Think again about those words from Deuteronomy which start the Shema prayer, "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one" . Do you remember the occasion when a scribe came up to Jesus and asked him which was the greatest commandment? It’s in Mark 12:27-31.
This was a really important question at the time, because there are 613 commandments in the Old Testament, plus all the other clarifications to the Law that scribes had added over the years. Jesus seems to have taken the question as meaning "Can you sum up the Torah, the Law of God in a sentence?" and he does. He takes the familiar, which is the Shema prayer, transforms it by the addition of a few words and immediately makes it understandable.
"The most important one," answered Jesus, "is this: 'Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: 'Love your neighbour as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these." Mark 12:29-31
"There you go," says Jesus. "That’s what the law is all about, love God, love others. All the others are merely clarifications of these"
That’s been called the Jesus Creed – Love God, love others.
That’s the essence of what a Christian life is all about, and you
can’t have one without the other. A Christian life is not just about
loving God; that love has to flow to others.
Now there’s another familiar Jewish prayer, called the Kaddish, and the opening words seem strangely familiar:
"Glorified and hallowed be God's great name throughout the world which He has created according to His will. May He establish His kingdom in your lifetime and during your days, and within the life of the entire House of Israel, speedily and soon; and say, Amen"
There are echoes of the Lord’s prayer here in "Hallowed be your name, your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven"
Did Jesus do the same here as he did with the Law, take the familiar and transform it? Take a prayer that his disciples would be familiar with and transform it by addition of the Jesus Creed (Love God, love others) so that it became his prayer, the one they would remember and pass down through generation to generation. The prayer that summed up what all our prayers should be about. It’s not all about me and my needs, it’s about God and it’s about us. Love God, love others.
Give us this day our daily bread…not me
Forgive us our sins…not me
As we have forgiven…
Lead us not into temptation…not me
The Lord’s Prayer is the Jesus Creed morphed into a prayer. It’s a yearning for God’s will to be done, his name to be hallowed. And it’s a yearning for all of us to benefit from the generous love of God, for our comfort, healing and spiritual well-being.
But it’s more even than that! Those 52 words are packed full of
significance, covering the spiritual realm, our physical needs and the
relational aspects of our lives.
1) The Spiritual Realm: We live in a scientific age which demands proof before belief can happen (if we discount the quasi-scientific editorials that appears in our newspapers under the guise of proven science – like the nutritional benefits of antioxidants, homeopathy, pills, potions and the like) and that can cause problems for many, because although as Christians we know there’s more to life than the mere physical, it’s not something that we can prove empirically. It’s a faith thing, and that’s why one commentator calls this the disciples prayer, it can only be meaningfully spoken by someone who is a disciple of Jesus.
"Hallowed be your name" means acknowledging that there is a spiritual realm.
And the spiritual connects with the physical realm in "your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven."
The best way of understanding "your kingdom come" is in the context of the Hebrew style of writing, called parallelism. You find it throughout the psalms. A verse divides into two where the second half repeats and amplifies the first half.
"God is our refuge and strength – a very present help in trouble." Psalm 46:1
"The Lord is my shepherd – I shall not want" Psalm 23:1,2
The second half of the verse brings out the meaning of the first.
If we apply the same idea to the Lord’s Prayer we have "your kingdom come - your will be done on earth as it is in heaven."
If the second half explains and amplifies the first then we have a definition of the kingdom of God – it is wherever on earth God’s will is as perfectly done as it is in heaven. To be in the kingdom is to submit to and obey God’s will. It’s not about nations, it’s about people, it’s about you and I, it’s about submission of my will, my life, my heart to God.
That’s why God’s kingdom can span past, present and future at the same time. Any one at any time in history who has submitted their lives to God’s will was living in God’s kingdom. But of course God’s will is not universally being done in the world at present, so there is the Christian’s hope of God’s kingdom being revealed in all its glory at some point in the future.
The first half of the prayer puts God at the centre, and having done that we can turn to ourselves and others. Love God, love others – the Jesus Creed.
2) The Physical: God is how big? He’s the creator of the universe, the sustainer of everything. It’s the Spirit of God we read about in Genesis hovering over the waters right at the beginning of the beginning of everything. God is that big and yet he is interested in the minute detail of your next meal. "Give us this day our daily bread.."
At the heart of our material needs is the food we eat, and the thought behind this phrase is that God is concerned with our daily physical needs, we can bring to him what might seem mundane concerns in the light of all that’s going on in the world.
3) The Relational: "Forgive us as we forgive" - This is where the prayer touches not only our relationship with God but also our relationships with others, and at a personal level that can hurt, because there are times when we fall out with each other. And Jesus knew this because he adds a rider to the prayer he’s teaching his disciples.
"For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins."
It’s in the relational that we so often fall down, isn’t it? It’s those things that people say and do that wind us up, and are so difficult to let go of. Because sin doesn’t always mean the big sins that come easily to mind; it can be a simple slip of the tongue, those actions or words that upset and offend that aren’t necessarily deliberate. The person may not even know that they have upset you. But these things, big or small get between us and spoil our relationship.
In one sense, Jesus’ words seem very severe. If we’re not prepared to forgive even the minor offence, then we can’t expect that same forgiveness from God. Could it be that what Jesus is actually getting at is something like this. The love which pours into our lives from God is intended to flow out from us to others. If we put a stopper on the bottle then nothing gets out or in. It’s not only our relationship with the other person that’s spoiled; it’s our relationship with God and that person that’s no longer working. The way to have a healthy relationship with God is to let his love flow through you to others.
In summing up, I found this little nugget which I think is amazing. It comes from William Barclay and shows such insight into Jesus’ prayer.
The Lord’s Prayer connects us with the whole of God.
1) The needs of the present – "Give us this day our daily bread"
That’s God the Creator and Sustainer
2) It brings the past into God’s presence – "Forgive us our sins…"
That’s God the Son, our Saviour and Redeemer
3) It commits our future into God’s hands – "Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from the evil one"
That’s God the Holy Spirit, our comforter, strengthener, guide and guardian.
As Barclay says "The Lord’s Prayer brings the whole of life into the presence of God, and brings the whole of God into the whole of life."
I’ve come to believe that far from thinking that saying this prayer too regularly can lead to ‘vain repetition’ to thinking that it ought to form part of our daily prayer. Yes, it can be used as a pattern for our general prayers, but on its own it is the disciples’ prayer and just as the disciples would have used it daily, as did the early church for the first couple of centuries at least, so should we.
It’s a very real connection with that day that the disciples asked Jesus "Teach us a prayer…"