When I was growing up in Ft. Collins we would often go to the city park and play on the canon in the middle of the playground. At one time it was a powerful weapon – no telling how many battles it had seen, but now its barrel was filled with cement, it was rusted and useless except as a toy. And how often I’ve thought of how that canon was like many of our prayer lives. At one time powerful – an effective weapon in our battle against Satan. Now neglected and rusted and useless – an occasional toy we play with.
James 5:16-18 is one of those passages that has always challenged me - Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.
In the Bible, we see a people of prayer, we hear page after page of admonitions to “pray constantly,” “pray without ceasing,” “pray always.” They are convicting, for our prayer is anything but constant. If we are honest, it is haphazard, it is ineffective, and filled more with frustration than faithfulness.
And the problem is not that we don’t believe in prayer. It is just difficult to carve out the time for prayer -- interrupted by distractions that demand our attention. And so we excuse ourselves as just being too busy to pray – too busy with kids, jobs, important activities – too busy. Prayer is a luxury we don’t have time to enjoy.
What does Paul mean when he says “pray without ceasing”? It sounds a bit unrealistic. Short of excusing ourselves from life and devoting ourselves to the life of a monk – well, that’s not it. Paul never withdrew from the world. Nobody has ever accomplished more – and yet his life was a life of prayer.
So what does it mean to have a prayer-full life? Henri Nouwen describes it: “When we walk in the Lord’s presence, everything we see, hear, touch, or taste reminds us of him. This is what is meant by a prayerful life. It is not a life in which we say many prayers, but a life in which nothing, absolutely nothing, is done, said, or understood independently of him who is the origin and purpose of our existence.” (Living Reminder, 28).
Our verses this morning, commonly called the Lord’s Prayer, encompass the essence, the heart of our lives as Christians. And they are set almost as a parenthesis within the context of what Jesus said about the spiritual lives of the Pharisees. This prayer stands as a contrast to their ego-centered, self-glorifying prayers. The Pharisees were pompous and verbose – this prayer is simple and precise – there is none of the self-centeredness. It focuses on God and his purpose in our lives. Let’s listen in once more – “This, then, is how you should pray: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.’” (Mt. 6:9-13)
Jesus begins by calling God “Our Father in heaven”
In Jesus’ original words, it was “Abba,” the innocent, intimate, endearing term of a child.
We are accustomed to praying, “our Father,” but when Jesus prayed, it was shocking. It was not unparalleled to refer to God as “Father” – you find it in the OT in later prophets – Isaiah 63, Jer. 3, Mal. 2. But while it was not unparalleled it was unusual, and certainly not in the way Jesus did it. In the OT, Father was used in the sense of the Father of the nation through Abraham, or Father as creator of all – it was formal and impersonal. But when Jesus prayed, “Abba,” it reflected an intimacy that no Jew would have dared voice.
“Father” carries with it the idea of authority, but it also carries with it the even greater feelings of intimacy, caring and concern.
And so, as we pray to “our Father in heaven” we understand that this Father, while the role model for earthly fathers, is far above any earthly father’s ability to genuinely care for the needs of his children.
Secondly, Jesus continues, we should pray “hallowed by your name”
From one perspective, it might appear that this is simply an ascription added to the name of God, simply an adjective ascribing to him the holy nature that is already his – much like a statement of praise – “you are holy, O God”.
But this really a request (it’s not an adjective, but a verb) – “make your name holy.” And that is a rather puzzling request, because the very definition of holiness depends on God’s holiness. How can you make God any more holy than he is? If God has 100% of holiness, how can you pray for his name to be more holy?
It seems to me that the one and only place in the universe where his holiness is not absolute is in our lives. I am not yet as holy as God wants – nor are you. If I truly acknowledge God’s absolute holiness I cannot help but fall to my knees with Isaiah who stood in the Temple and “saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple…” and hear the seraphim calling out, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” And what was Isaiah’s response? “Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.” In recognizing God’s holiness we become acutely aware of our own unholiness.
And so, when I pray, “make your name holy,” I am really asking God to perfect his holiness in me – to do things in my life that will make me a holier person. And that is a dangerous prayer to pray, because we are really opening our lives up to him for radical surgery. He may have to change the way I act, the way I talk, the way I think. He may have to knock me to my knees and start all over. “Father, help me to get these rebellious thoughts under control, help me to carry out these good intentions that I leave hanging, help me to grow and mature in Christ.”
But my prayer for the final result of God’s holiness being perfected in me is that when people see my life, they will see, not me, but God living within me. Who can imagine what we can be at the end of the line, when God is done working on us, when God is given our permission to work his will in our lives?
The next focus of the prayer is “your kingdom come…” This was a constant theme in Jesus’ life and preaching – it became a dominant theme in the understanding of the identity of the church. If you want to understand how Jesus views God’s kingdom you must see it in terms of God’s sovereign rule in the lives of people. Wherever God rules there is his kingdom. In fact, some have suggested that Jesus defines this kingdom by the words that follow – “…your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Where God rules is where his will is being done. And it is an obvious fact of human experience that many have not submitted to his rule.
And so when I pray for God’s kingdom to come, isn’t what I’m praying for that God’s rule may somehow come over into people’s lives who have not submitted to his rule? How is that supposed to happen? Lightning bolt, divine announcement? No, you see, this is really a prayer for evangelism. And what I’m praying for is for God to take me and use me to bring his kingdom into their lives. Isn’t that what Paul was talking about in 2 Cor. 5 when he said, “We are ambassadors of Christ, God making his appeal through us.” That’s kingdom language. That defines my role in God’s kingdom in terms of my impact on the lives of others – am I spreading the good news of Jesus Christ and the joys and blessings of being a citizen of God’s kingdom?
That’s a powerful prayer, but let’s admit it – it’s also a scary kind of prayer – because I may not be ready to go out and tell others about the kingdom and help bring them to God.
But for those of us who didn’t grow up in the church, that is a powerful prayer, because someone, somewhere took that prayer to heart and shared the good news with us and it literally changed our lives. And that’s what prayer can do. But I shudder to think what my life would have been if someone didn’t have the vision and the courage to beg young people to ride on a joy bus -- hadn’t asked me to study the Bible -- hadn’t challenged me to give my life to God – hadn’t prayed this prayer that God’s kingdom would come into my life.
And I wonder how many people there are out there who are your friends and neighbors and co-workers who would come to Christ joyfully if you would be praying for God’s kingdom to come in their lives, and looking for the opportunity to introduce them to Christ, and when that opportunity came, to seize it.
The prayer continues: “Give us today our daily bread” The idea is that day by day we are to trust God, and God will provide. It is a petition that has almost been lost in our modern American culture, because we have plenty of everything. And even the poorest among us have available at least something to sustain them. We are so far removed from a concern for the daily needs of life. We think far into the future, and we really don’t see a need to depend upon God for anything, because we have good jobs, good pensions, social security, IRAs, life insurance. It’s going to come to us whether we pray for it or not, so forget about praying for daily bread.
But it’s not like that all over the world. It’s not even like that all over Glenwood Springs. And to those people who exist from day to day, this is an intensely meaningful prayer.
And I believe that if we would take seriously this prayer for daily bread, and say that this all depends upon God, and not upon my job or on my financial assets that I have stored away – and if we would reclaim that sense of dependency upon God that these Israelites must have felt, I’ll guarantee we would be a lot less materialistic, because we would understand the source of all of these blessings and we wouldn’t have to grab all this stuff and clutch it to us, because we know that God will take care of us.
Jesus says to pray, “Forgive us our debts” (Luke – “sins”)
We often add this as a little addendum to our prayers – a just in case – much like our shameless disregard for the power of the mediator of our prayers when we thoughtlessly add “inJesusnameamen.”
Can we even fathom the tremendous gift that we have been given in forgiveness? Jesus likens this sin to a debt – a debt that we could not possibly pay – a debt that only God himself is able to cancel – and this looks ahead toward the cross.
And perhaps Jesus’ listeners didn’t understand all of the implications of this forgiveness, but they understood sin and its unbearable weight in their lives. Sometimes we sense an enormous need for forgiveness in our lives (with David we pray, “my sin is ever before me”), other times we think, “forgive me of my sin” – big deal. But Jesus compels us to realize the seriousness of sin and the devastating power of sin in our lives – and the grace of God’s forgiveness.
And not only God’s forgiveness of us, but our forgiveness of others. You see, there is one little proviso – a contingency – “as we also have forgiven our debtors” (or “those who have sinned against us.”) And following the prayer Jesus re-emphasizes how important our willingness to forgive is – vss. 14-15 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.
You say, “I can’t forgive that person – you don’t know how I’ve been hurt,” and you harbor these grudges and this bitterness, and you hold those debts against others and refuse to let go, because they have wronged you. And Jesus says, “don’t expect something from God that you are unwilling to likewise bestow on others.”
We will often withhold forgiveness from others saying, “they have to ask.” And they never ask, and so we have all these debts against others that we carry around and say, “they haven’t asked,” as though somehow that excuses us from the need to forgive. The readiness to forgive needs to be there, and we forgive others regardless of their readiness to be forgiven (sounds almost like Paul in Rom. 5 – “while we were sill sinners...” It’s a good thing God didn’t wait around for us to ask. We release the person who has wronged us, and remarkably, in the process we release ourselves.
And finally, Jesus prays, “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.”
If you interpret this to mean, “Don’t let any more temptations come into my life,” God can arrange that, but it will take a funeral – yours. We are going to be tempted, it’s part of being human. Our prayer is for God’s help – keep me from getting in over my head – Paul wrote in 1 Cor. 10:13 – “but with every temptation, God will provide a way of escape.”
So many times, we don’t want to pray this prayer because we don’t want really want God to get in the way of what I want to do. If I start praying for him to deliver me from sin, no telling what he might want to prune out of my life, and the things I might have to give up, and I don’t know if I really want to give them up. But Jesus wants you to start with that prayer. You might not want to give something up, but start praying to want to, and it’s amazing how God can change your heart.
Even worse is the experience of being forgiven and overcoming sin, only to let down your guard and WHAM! Satan nails you. Have you ever had the experience – I have – of failing and failing and finally coming to God in deep humiliation and confessing, “God, I just can’t do it… if you don’t give me the power I’m lost…” – and God does.
If what Jesus says is to be more than just “instructional” – if it is to be life-transforming, we must move our lives of prayer from habit to heart.
I am convinced it begins with silence – “Be still and know that I am God.” We don’t create very much silence in which to experience God’s presence. As long as the TV is blaring, the phone ringing, people begging for our attention -- cramming a few perfunctory seconds of prayer into the schedule isn’t going to make a lot of difference. We must create a time. And then we weave through the fabric of our day that unbroken thread of prayerfulness that we talked about earlier.
We must also bring to that time an attitude – an attitude the Psalmist had: Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. (Ps. 139:23-24).
We can’t come to God on our terms, with our agenda. Prayer is not primarily for our benefit, but for God’s glory. And only when we come into his presence with that powerful, all-encompassing plea – “thy will be done” – will we experience the true power of prayer.
We spoke earlier of the prayer for God’s kingdom to come – that his kingdom is where God rules in the lives of people. Ironically, even the walls of a church building are inadequate to define the rule of God in people’s lives. The kingdom isn’t defined by your geography on Sunday morning, it’s defined by the condition of your heart. Does it belong to God, is Jesus the lord and ruler of your life? Come this morning to become a citizen of God’s kingdom and a member of his family.