Summer on the Mount: Jesus tells it like it is – Prayer

Matthew 6:5-15, Preached at Montecito Covenant Church – By Diana R.G. Trautwein

July 19, 2009

I had a conversation with a friend this week, a friend who happens to be a psychologist with a very full patient load. I told her that I was going to be preaching on prayer this week, specifically on the Lord’s Prayer, and she said to me: “Oh, Diana. I am so glad to hear this. I don’t think there is any more important topic today than prayer. I am seeing so many people in my practice who are confused, stymied, stuck, sort of on information-overload, spending more and more time Twittering, posting on Facebook, checking their emails, surfing the net for everything under the sun, up to and including relationships, that they have no room left to discover and nurture some sense of an ‘inside self,’ an interior space, where they can sit in quiet and discover who they are and who God is.”

Wow. That hit a nerve with me – to be reminded that we are part of a rapidly changing techno-culture that has us dealing with so many words, so many images, so many voices – coming from so many different directions, that our minds are quite literally bombarded and our fingers are swollen to the size of sausages with the amount of texting and typing we’re engaged in on a daily basis. Even those of us without computers (and there are very few who fall into that category any more!) feel the impact of the new technologies we live with today. From the man pacing up and down in the public parking garage yesterday, speaking in a raised voice to no one in particular, until I saw the Bluetooth device in one ear and realized he was on the phone; to the student text-messaging his girlfriend while listening to a classical music concert; to the grandmother (and that would be me!) commenting on her children’s and grandchildren’s blogsite, written while they are visiting countries half a world away – this growing ability to be in constant contact via the world wide web has infiltrated every layer of life. Now don’t get me wrong – a lot of the time – in fact, most of the time, I am a huge fan of all this stuff. I appreciate being able to carry a phone with me. I’ve enjoyed contacts made with old friends and new via Facebook. I love being able to reach someone I love in an instant. I relish having a veritable encyclopedia of information available to me at the click of a button. I do, I really do.

BUT, my friend’s comments drew me back to the scripture before us this morning with a new urgency, and a renewed hunger for fewer words, but deeper ones, for slower points of contact, but richer ones, for a bit of a breather from the incessant and invasive nature of our post-modern, cyber-kinetic age. So, with that idea in mind, please hear the word of the Lord, as it is written in the gospel of Matthew, chapter 6, verses 5-15:

5 “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. 7 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. 9 “This, then, is how you should pray: 

” ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name,

10 your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

11 Give us today our daily bread.

12 And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.

13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.

For if you forgive others when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.

This is God’s word for us this day.

We are looking today at the second of 3 sections in the middle of the three chapters that make up this long sermon of Jesus’ which we’ve been studying all summer – the Sermon on the Mount, which deals with the very center of our faith and practice as Christians. And the first thing I want you to note about this teaching is how very Jewish it is. For in this chunk of the sermon, Jesus draws from his own heritage as a devout Jewish man and infuses that heritage with his own particular slant, his own unique interpretation. In the opening 18 verses of chapter 6, Jesus examines the three basic elements of Jewish piety, the three pillars, the foundation of Jewish belief and practice – almsgiving (which Don dealt with last week), prayer (which we’re looking at today) and fasting (which Don will lead us through next Sunday) – a 3-fold list well-known to every faithful Jewish person in his audience. And he begins his teaching on each of the three with a negative – don’t do it this way – and then he follows up with a positive – do do it this way. Each of the three begins with the same warning: don’t be like the hypocrites – those who act the part of a righteous person. Don’t do these foundational things so that other people can see you and applaud you for your religious perfection. No. Do them quietly, in secret, so that you know and God knows that you’re doing them for the right reasons.

In the teaching before us today, Jesus does a couple of things differently from the other two: first, he adds a second negative warning; and second, he includes an example of what a positive prayer should look like. So, there is the usual negative warning – don’t be like the hypocrites, who pray for others to see, followed by the usual positive admonition – do go into a quiet, hidden place and pray for God to see. And then he adds this second negative: don’t be like the pagans, whose ‘prayers’ sound like babbling – too many words, too many repeated sounds, too little faith that God already knows what is needed before the prayer is offered. And it is in response to this warning against too many words – too much babbling – that Jesus goes on to say: “This, then, is how you should pray,” and we find the prayer before us this morning.

Pretty cool, huh? Don’t you wish that for every time in your life you’ve been told how NOT to do something, you would also be given an example of just how TO do it? Jesus does not disappoint! He gives those who listen to him a great gift – a sample, a model, a pattern for real, meaningful, honest and true prayer. Prayer that leads the disciple down the path of true righteousness, which is the goal of each of the three pillars of Judaism. Prayer that encourages the right ordering of priorities, prayer that allows for the recognition of our needs as dependent human creatures, prayer that doesn’t shy away from the real-world environment in which we live – this wild and wonderful but sometimes dark and dangerous place where we are planted as signposts of the kingdom of God.

I’ve given you a handout this morning, something we rarely do here at MCC, in which I’ve attempted to outline this important set of 11 verses of scripture. It’s a two-sided insert and that’s a helpful tactile and visual image for the two sections of this short, but powerful prayer. I have deliberately written it out as we find it in our text for today, the text found in our pew Bibles, to be exact – and not quite as we just prayed it with the kids a few minutes ago. And I’ve done that for one very particular reason and that is this: most of us are so very familiar with this prayer – whether or not we’re entirely sure if it’s “debts,” “trespasses,” or “sins” – that we too often rattle it off by rote memory and don’t think about it a whole lot. And that is truly sad, and in many ways, antithetical to Jesus’ intent in giving it to us in the first place. I think perhaps what we have called “the Lord’s Prayer” has too often become a prime example of babbling – the very thing Jesus warned us against. Hopefully, spending just a few minutes today looking at this prayer in a slightly different wording and format will help us move away from babbling and toward prayer.

An important first note: these words, as they are recorded for us in Matthew’s gospel, are meant to provide an outline, a pattern, a design rather than a set of words to be repeated verbatim week after week. (And let me just pause for a moment here and immediately say that there is nothing wrong with doing just that – repeating this prayer, from memory, as many times in a day or a week or a worship service as it is helpful and true to do so. It is a beautiful and remarkable prayer and it is worth knowing and saying – as long as that saying comes from the heart as well as the memory.) But what I want to offer to you this morning is a different angle, perhaps a new way of praying this prayer that moves away from ritual toward personal devotional experience. And to do that, I want to offer just a few observations about the prayer as a whole and the prayer in its parts. Please bear in mind that entire books and series of multiple sermons have been written and preached on these words, so our look this morning will be cursory at best.

Notice first that what Jesus says here is not “Here, then, is ‘what’ you should pray. What he says is, “Here, then is ‘how’ you should pray,” giving us a short, simple guideline for conversing with God every day. And he borrows ideas and even phrases here and there from the prayers that all of his listeners were familiar with – the Hebrew Kaddish, which was the closing prayer in the weekly synagogue service, and the 18 Benedictions, which were to be prayed 3 times a day, at sunrise, noonday and sunset. But Jesus puts them together uniquely and he condenses them a lot. The front side of your handout includes each of the phrases from the first section of the prayer – the things Jesus encourages us to say to God about God. What Jesus says to us here, with this format for our prayers, is this: begin by remembering to whom you are speaking.

God is Father – one of the loveliest names for God in all of scripture, and one that Jesus used frequently. But here are two things to note right away – first, God is not just my father – he is our father. Everywhere in the entire prayer, as a matter of fact, where the first person is used, it is used in the plural, not the singular. With each and every usage, we are reminded that we are in relationship with one another, as well as with God. As one of my pastors long ago used to say, and I’m sure you’ve all heard it: “There are no Lone Ranger Christians.” We are always part of a body, a community, a family, with the Triune God as head, as Father of us all.

And the second thing to notice about this opening line is that our Father, who is personal and close at hand, is also Other – different, distinct, HOLY. God is our heavenly father. And God’s name – which is the same thing as saying God’s character, God’s being – is to be held as sacred, set apart, hallowed, holy. So – God is Father, God is our Father, God is holy.

And it is a wonder to me that we can ever rattle off the next three lines – your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. If you wanted to draw the marrow, the meat, the center, out of this prayer, I think these 3 phrases would be it: The Lord’s prayer is a kingdom prayer, a prayer of recognition of and submission to God’s kingdom will, which was ushered in with the work of Jesus and which will ultimately be fulfilled at the end of time. The more I reflect on that powerful truth, the more awestruck I am, the more moved to fear and trembling. Do we really understand what we are saying, what we are asking, when we pray these words?

Because they remind me of the other time we hear words like these from the lips of Jesus – in that garden in Gethsemane, remember? “Not my will, but yours be done…” as he awaited certain torture and death. Even there, even then, Jesus recognized the sovereignty of God the Father, the overarching goodness of God’s plan, despite the pain involved in bringing it to pass. These are not ‘white-flag,’ throw-your-hands-in-the-air kind of words. These are words of adoration, recognition and willing participation in the rule and will of God for creation, no matter the cost to us personally. And that is the through-line for this entire prayer, for Jesus’ entire ministry, for the life and work of the church, for the ultimate fulfillment and satisfaction of each and every one of us: Your kingdom come. Your will be done

Big stuff, big vision, ultimate reality.

Now turn that sheet over and be reminded of how gracious this Kingdom God of ours truly is. For here is where we find the closest thing we’re going to find in this prayer to a ‘list.’ This is where we talk to God about ourselves. Four requests – daily bread, forgiveness of sin, avoidance of temptation or testing, protection from the evil one. Jesus does not forget that we are but dust and ashes, that as creatures whose frame he well knows, we are dependent on our God for life, for sustenance, for spiritual and emotional health, and for the strength and ability to follow the way of righteous living to which we are called.

Although there is a ton of stuff that could be said about these closing words, (and as far as the scripture itself is concerned, these are the closing words of the Lord’s Prayer – the ones that we close with each time we say it were added very early in the church’s history, they come from the Old Testament, and they are quite appropriate for our corporate use in worship), but of these textual closing words, I want to comment on just one line – as it is a line which Jesus chooses to repeat in a slightly different form in the closing verses of today’s passage.

In both places, Jesus speaks quite strongly of the power of forgiveness. And he makes very clear that the true power of the forgiveness we receive from God our Father will be evidenced in our lives by our willingness and ability to forgive others. This is not a you-do-this-and-then-God-will-do-that kind of statement. It is a cause-and-effect statement, but in this way only: if you have ever truly experienced, to the depths of your soul and the soles of your feet, the remarkable and generous gift of grace which comes from God’s forgiveness of your many sins and frailties – if you’ve ‘gotten’ that real good – then the necessary and natural overflow of that experience has to show up in the way you treat other people who have ‘done you wrong.’ And if you’re carrying around a grudge, a reservoir of hurt feelings, a resistance to letting grace flow through you to the one who has hurt you, then there is no real way that you can experience God’s forgiveness in the way that forgiveness is designed to be experienced.

Fifty words, give or take a few. Fifty words. Far from babbling, far from repetitive, far from trying to manipulate God with lots of noise. Fifty words, that if used as a template for our prayer life can simplify and personalize the entire experience. Try taking one phrase each day and living with that throughout your day – reflecting on its meaning with all that do, all whom you meet. Or try using this sheet, with its blank spaces between phrases, to write your own words underneath each one. Or use the phrases of this prayer as a means of centering and quieting yourself. Sit in a private place, in a relaxed posture – without your cell phone, or your blackberry, or your laptop anywhere nearby – and softly say a phrase with each breath in and each breath out. See if that doesn’t help you discover and nurture some sense of an ‘inside self,’ an interior space, where you can sit in quiet and discover who you are and who God is.

Will you pray with me, please?

Eternal God, our Father, may we hold your name holy this day.

Help us, teach us, to pray for the coming of your kingdom,

in our lives, in our homes, in our families, in our world.

Let your will be done in us, through us. Your perfect will –

as it is done in heaven, so here as well.

You know our needs already,

but we are bold to ask that you would give us

what we need each day to be fruitful, faithful people of yours.

Enough bread of all kinds –

bread to eat, bread to nourish us spiritually,

bread to remind us of the future Great Banquet when your will rules all.

And open us to the power of your forgiveness that we, in turn, might offer

that grace, that loving acceptance, to those who hurt us.

We pray today for deliverance from all that would tempt us away from your perfect will,

and for protection from the fiery darts of evil that would keep us from following you well.

We give you praise for all of life and gladly acknowledge that

yours is the kingdom,

yours is the power,

yours is the glory.


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