When I was a teenager and a fairly new Christian, a man called Vijay Menon came to our church to lead an evangelistic mission. During the few days he was at our church he stayed at the rectory, where I lived, and I quickly became aware of his prayer life. Vijay was an early riser; he got up every morning at 5 o’clock, made himself a cup of tea, and then spent the first couple of hours of the day in Bible reading and prayer.
This made a big impression on me. I’d already been having prayer times in the mornings, but they tended to be rather rushed. Vijay’s example challenged me to be more intentional about those prayer times, and to get up a bit earlier to give myself more time. He never gave me any verbal instruction about prayer, but his personal prayer practice was a real inspiration to me.
I expect something like that happened in today’s gospel. In those days, what we now call ‘private life’ was non-existent. Very few people had private bedrooms unless they were very rich. Jesus and his disciples would have lived in very close quarters with each other, and I expect they would have shared prayer times together. We know from the gospels that Jesus was also in the habit of praying alone, but when he did it, he had to go off by himself into the country and find a lonely place.
Our gospel begins by telling us that ‘Jesus was praying in a certain place’ (Luke 11.1).I tend to imagine this happening in the open country, with Jesus taking himself off to the edge of the group, closing his eyes and raising his hands and focussing on his Father. Perhaps he took a substantial period of time doing it. Maybe his disciples noted his intensity, the sense that he was in conscious contact with God, the sense that something supernatural was going on. Something about it got their attention and aroused their curiosity. And so, when he was done, one of them said, “Lord, teach us to do that!” The result was what we now call the Lord’s Prayer.
So what does Jesus teach here about prayer? I’m not going to make this easy for you this morning; I’m going to point out six things in these verses. Maybe you should write them down!
First, he teaches us that it matters who is praying.This is a prayer for disciples. Disciples are people who are following Jesus, learning to see life as he sees it and live life as he taught. And this prayer is soaked in the experiences and priorities of Jesus.
What do I mean by that? Well, Jesus experiences God as his loving heavenly Father. Jesus lives his life to bring honour to God’s name and to spread God’s kingdom by his words and actions, by his life and death and resurrection. Jesus speaks words of forgiveness, gives bread to the hungry, and wins the victory over the tests and temptations of the devil. Do you see the connections with the Lord’s Prayer? As I said, this prayer is soaked in the experiences and priorities of Jesus.
We disciples of Jesus are called to follow him and imitate him. So he teaches us to relate to God as a loving parent. He teaches us to seek first the kingdom of God and value it ahead of riches or success or anything else in life we might long for. He teaches us to share our bread with the hungry. He teaches us to forgive one another and even love our enemies, and to stand fast when we’re tested and tempted by the forces of evil. This is the life we’re learning to live as disciples, and it’s the life we’re learning to pray in the Lord’s Prayer. If we’re consistent disciples, our prayers and our lives will agree with each other. Living the life of a disciple will help us pray this prayer, and praying this prayer will help us live the life of a disciple.
So it matters who is praying: disciples of Jesus. Second, it matters that you pray with others. Nowadays many people think of prayer as something we do by ourselves. ‘You don’t have to come to church to pray’, people say, and we get the sense that what they mean by prayer is a person sitting quietly at home with a cup of herbal tea, hands spread out, eyes closed, praying to God in the individuality of their own head.
But true Christian prayer is not individual. Don’t get me wrong here: I’m not saying we shouldn’t pray alone—of course we should! But even when we pray alone, we’re not really praying alone. Every pronoun in the Lord’s Prayer is a plural pronoun. ‘Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, as we forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial’ (Luke 11.3-4). This is the prayer of a community. When we pray it, we’re joining a community of disciples all over the world, addressing our heavenly Father together.
Prayer together is the fundamental Christian prayer. Prayer alone is an extension of our prayers together. But whenever it’s possible for us to gather to pray, we should do that. That’s why Sunday worship is meant to be a priority for Christians. It’s not something we should relegate to the ‘if I’ve got nothing better to do’ part of our schedule. The letter to the Hebrews says ‘Do not neglect to meet together, as is the habit of some’ (Hebrews 10.25). We are a community of disciples, gathering together around the Lord’s Table, like a family coming together for a weekly meal—not just to enjoy each other’s company but also to join together in prayer to the God we have in common.
Prayer together keeps us steady. If the only prayer we have is individual prayer, it’ll be easy to neglect it. We’ll find all kinds of excuses why we can’t do it. Too busy. Too tired. Too discouraged. Too stressed. But if we have a commitment to meet together and pray, the commitment will carry us.
So it matters who is praying, and it matters that you pray with others. Thirdly, it matters who you pray to.“What on earth do you mean?” you ask. “Surely God is God? Who else would you pray to?” Yes—but it matters what you think about the God you’re praying to. Some people think the God they’re praying to needs humans to fight and kill each other so as to bring him honour. Others think God doesn’t really care about us. I heard of a Christian who once asked a friend what he thought about God. The reply surprised him: “The way I see it, God’s got a lot on his mind. World hunger, global warming, wars in the Middle East, AIDS and all that. So the best thing I can do for God is to stay out of his way.”
It makes a difference if you think you’re praying to a God who only has so much time and attention to give, doesn’t it? If you’re in competition with everyone else’s needs, who’s to say whether or not the answer to your prayer is going to be made on a Friday? That’s not a very encouraging thought, is it?
But Jesus encourages us to think of God as the best and wisest of parents or friends. He uses two parables to bring this message home. First, if your friend suddenly finds herself in need of some extra food because of unexpected company, you’ll help out without question, because she matters to you. Second, if your child comes to you and asks for some food, you’re not going to give them a scorpion instead of an egg, are you? We’re sinners, but even sinners like us know how to care for our friends and our kids! How much more will the heavenly Father care for us, his beloved children?
God is like the best and wisest and most selfless father or mother we could ever imagine. God provides for our needs. God guides us and helps us grow in wisdom. If that’s what you believe about God, you’re going to have no hesitation going to God in times of need and asking for help. And especially when you’re seeking first the Kingdom of God, so that the things you’re praying for are also the things Godis longing for—if you feel that way, you’re going to be quick to turn to God for help.
So it matters who is praying, it matters that you pray with others, and it matters who you pray to. Fourthly, it matters what you pray for.
The Lord’s Prayer is divided into two simple sections: God’s priorities, and our necessities. God’s priorities come first. We don’t come charging into God’s presence and immediately present our prayer shopping list. First we think about who we’re praying to, and we pray about the things that are important to God.
So we pray that God’s name will be hallowed. If we love God, then God’s good name matters to us. To slander someone’s good name is to smear their reputation in the world. So this is a prayer that God’s name would be known and loved and honoured in the world.
Obviously more than just the name is at stake here. Before I met Marci I had never known anyone by that name. Now, it’s the most precious name in the world to me—because I love the one who bears it. So for us to say ‘Hallowed be your name’ is a form of praise and an expression of love. John Newton wrote, ‘How sweet the name of Jesus sounds in a believer’s ear! It soothes his sorrows, heals his wounds, and drives away his fear!’ Obviously in this hymn, the name of Jesus is sweet because the person of Jesus is loved so much.
So we pray that God’s name will be loved and honoured, and we also pray that God’s kingdom will come. Matthew’s longer version of the Lord’s Prayer explains this: ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.’ So we are praying that God’s perfect rule of love and compassion, justice and peace will be established on earth. This is a prayer that everyone in the world will have enough and no one too much—that the good earth God has created will be respected and cherished—that people will treat each other as friends and not enemies—and that all over the world people will love and honour God above everything else.
So we focus on God’s priorities first of all. But then we turn to our necessities. Jesus mentions three things: food, forgiveness, and deliverance from times of testing and temptation.
‘Give us each day our daily bread’ (v.3). This is a very simple prayer. It’s not a prayer for lottery wins or plane tickets or expensive holidays or success in business. It’s a prayer that we will know where tomorrow’s meal is coming from. In other words, it’s a prayer that we will enjoy the necessities of life. Note: that we will enjoy the necessities of life—not I, but we. So to pray the Lord’s Prayer is not just a prayer that I will have the necessities of life, but that everyone on earth will enjoy them too. And of course, we can’t pray that if we aren’t prepared to change our lifestyle to help make it happen.
‘And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us’ (v.4). We are in need not only of food but also of forgiveness, because we all stand before God as sinners. The language of debt is used here, because love is a debt we owe to God and our neighbour. The great commandments are to love God with all your heart and love your neighbour as yourself. How are we doing with that? The truth is, of course, that every day we fall short, and so every day we need to come to God for forgiveness. And we also commit ourselves to being people who extend forgiveness to others as well. Jesus is very clear about this: the people who can come to God and ask for forgiveness are the people who are willing to at least try to forgive those who have sinned against them.
‘And do not bring us to the time of trial’ (v.4). The Greek word can mean both times of testing and temptation; you have to decide from the context what the meaning is. I suspect that in this prayer it means ‘Don’t bring us to trials too hard for us, and when we’re in the middle of them, help us get through them.’
So it matters that we pray for the right things. We can pray that God’s name will be honoured and God’s kingdom will come on earth as in heaven. We can pray for the necessities of life for ourselves and others, for the forgiveness of our sins and for God’s help in times of difficulty. And we can also pray for the gift of the Holy Spirit, as Jesus says at the end of the passage: “How much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him” (v.13). These are the prayers that Jesus promises God will hear.
So it matters who is praying, it matters that you pray with others, it matters who you pray to, and it matters what you pray for. Fifthly—and this breaks the pattern a bit—it doesn’t matter that your prayers are long or exactly worded!
The Lord’s Prayer is short. Yes, it’s more of a pattern than a prayer, and we’re expected to add to it when we use it—to fill out each petition with our own particular concerns. But it’s not a long prayer, and it would seem to indicate there’s no particular virtue in praying long prayers.
Also, there are two different versions of the Lord’s Prayer. The one we use in church is based on Matthew’s version, which is a little longer. Luke’s version misses out some of the familiar petitions. Interestingly enough, some time in the early Christian centuries someone was so bothered by this that they changed Luke’s version and added the extra words from Matthew. When the King James Version was translated in 1611 those changed manuscripts of Luke were all the translators had, so in the King James the Lord’s Prayer is basically identical between Matthew and Luke. But in the centuries since then archeologists have discovered older copies of Luke, without the additional words. So most modern translations use those older manuscripts and give us the shorter version in Luke.
What does this tell us? It tells us that Jesus didn’t always teach this prayer in exactly the same way! He didn’t see himself primarily as giving a fixed, rote prayer for his followers to pray for the next two thousand years, although there’s nothing wrong with us praying it together. But Jesus saw it primarily as an outline of things we should pray about. When we pray by ourselves or in small groups, we should feel free to fill out the outline.
So it matters who is praying, it matters that we pray with others, it matters who we pray to, it matters what we pray for, but it doesn’t matter that our prayers are long or exactly worded.
One last thing and then I’m done. This has all been fascinating, but if all you do is listen to it and then do nothing, it’s not accomplishing very much. So the last thing is simply to say it matters that you pray. You learn to talk by talking. You learn to ride a bike by riding a bike. And you learn to pray by praying.
If you already pray every day, this prayer can help you focus on the things that really matter. But if you don’t already have a prayer discipline, the most important thing you can do is to go home, look at your schedule, write yourself in a daily prayer appointment, and then keep it. And keep on keeping it. The things we do every day have a transformational effect on us, far more than the things we do occasionally.
We have asked the Lord to teach us to pray. He’s done as we asked. The next step is up to us.