The Lord's Prayer

The Lord's Prayer

The Lord’s Prayer is perhaps the most familiar of all prayers. It is hard to imagine any worship without it. It comes twice in the New Testament: in Matthew’s gospel, which we have just heard; and in Luke’s gospel. The words and circumstances are slightly different, and I shall refer to both accounts.

But before I talk about it, I want to recap a few things from last week’s reading: Matthew’s introduction to the prayer. In his account, the prayer comes in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ radical description of how we are to live, often in contrast to the lives of much of society, both then and now.

First, prayer is ‘when’ not ‘if’. Second, we are to pray in private, unseen, to our Father who is also unseen. Of course, that does not exclude prayer in public acts of worship. Both are essential. Third, our Father knows our needs, and by extension the needs of all the world, before we ask. And I suspect that often our Father has a different view of what our needs are. Indeed, I want to suggest that one of the purposes of prayer is that it changes our view of our needs, and the needs of others, to align with our Father’s view.

There are also two things that prayer is not. First, prayer is not about demonstrating to others our piety: instead prayer is about engaging with our Father in heaven. Second, prayer does not consist of mindless repetition of words. Our Father is not impressed by the number of words we say, nor their literary quality, but about the meaning and intent that we put behind them.

In Luke’s introduction, his disciples have seen Jesus at prayer, and they ask Him to teach them to pray, ‘just as John taught his disciples.’ Jesus says ‘When you pray, say…’ These are the words to use. In Matthew’s account, Jesus puts it slightly differently: ‘This, then, is how you should pray.’ These are the subjects that should occupy our prayer life. And as I go through them we can ask ourselves how we match up to this ideal. For myself, the classic line ‘Could do better’ applies. But I hope that by the end of this series, that all of us will be doing better, although we may not have arrived.

Matthew’s structure is to begin with saying whom the prayer is addressing; then there are three petitions with the pronoun ‘your’ [Luke only has two], then three with the pronoun ‘our’. After the prayer, Matthew expands on one of the ‘our’ petitions.

Matthew begins with ‘Our Father in heaven.’ The ‘Our’ rather than ‘My’ shows that prayer, even when done in private, by ourselves, is a corporate activity: we pray together to the same Father.

The one we are addressing is God, the creator and sustainer of the universe, who reigns supreme, who is distant and mighty and all powerful. But we also address Him as ‘Father’, intimate and close, but one who still has authority over us. So there is this tension between the two, and we have to hold the two together, in tension. Different parts of the church tend to make different mistakes. Some place so much emphasis on his closeness, and the danger is that we become over familiar, and forget that He is supreme. While others place so much emphasis on his majesty, that we forget that He is close. And yet it is only when we hold the proper balance between the two that we can understand why prayer can be effective.

It is effective because God is close and familiar and intimate, because we can call Him ‘Father’ that He is concerned with our needs, and wants to be with us and to meet our needs. It is because He is supreme and powerful and distant that He can do so.

Prayer is a mystery, but we know, because of the nature of the one to whom it is addressed, that it is effective. This, for me, is summed up in two sentences that I heard: ‘Prayer moves the hand that moves the universe,’ and ‘Prayer changes things.’

The first three petitions, so the first priority in our prayers, are about God. ‘Hallowed be your name.’ (In Jewish thought, the name is equivalent to the person.) Our first concern is that our God and Father be honoured and exalted. There is a type of national leader who are concerned with their own status, that the first duty of their people is to honour and praise them. They are dictators. But our Father is not like that: He is worthy of our praise and honour because He is good, and supreme and all powerful. He is above all others. And He will not abuse our praise and honour, for He loves us with a love that is unending and perfect. It is by honouring Him, and acknowledging this to ourselves that we have the proper perspective to see clearly what are the world’s needs, and that our Father longs to meet them..

‘Your kingdom come.’ Because our Father is supreme and all powerful and good, because He is the creator, it is only as His kingdom advances, as all people live more and more by His standards that the world can become a better place. We want God’s good and just reign to extend throughout His creation. This is summed up in the next petition: ‘Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’ It goes without saying that God reigns unchallenged in heaven, that His will is done there. It is only as His will is done more and more on earth that His kingdom will come and His name be hallowed.

But for His will to be done, we have to know what is His will. Complementary to prayer is reading and studying the Bible. For in it our Father speaks to us, and tells us what His will is. In the OT, perhaps particularly in the book of Judges, there are characters who what to acknowledge and honour God, who want His kingdom to come, and who want to do His will, but get it wrong because they do not know the scriptures, and the kingdom does not advance as far as it could have done. So don’t just pray, read as well.

It’s only when we have acknowledged and understood who God our Father is, and have fallen down in worship that we can turn to our own needs, and those of others, that we can ask rightly. This is emphasised immediately after Luke’s account.

Matthew goes on: ‘Give us this day our daily bread.’ Some take this to mean our spiritual needs, or the Eucharist. But I think its main meaning is the physical necessities of life. Food and shelter and so on. Not just for ourselves, but for each other and the whole world. Our God and Father longs to give us these things. But it is only in worship, and in understanding what our Father wants of us, that we know what are our needs, and those of others.

‘Forgive us our debts,’ or sins or trespasses, ‘as we also have forgiven our debtors.’ One of the great messages of the Christian faith is that our Father will forgive us our debts when we ask. Part of the mystery of the cross and empty tomb is about that forgiveness. Jesus died for our sins and the sins of the world. But the point here, and emphasised by Matthew immediately after the prayer, is that unless we are prepared to forgive others, how can we

expect forgiveness for ourselves? Particularly when our debts to our God are far less than others’ to us. It’s not a bargain with God, but more a statement of reality. It is in worship, in deepening our relationship with our Father, in understanding His love for us, that our love for others, for the creation will be deepened. And we will be able to accept forgiveness for ourselves, and want to forgive others.

‘And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.’ Life can be tough, with many dangers and much that is evil. And of course we will want to be protected from them, and we are right to ask it. It is in worship, in aligning ourselves with our Father and His will, in seeking the coming of His kingdom, that we will recognise temptation and that which is evil and be able to avoid and be delivered from them.

I suppose that what I have been working up to saying is that the foundation of prayer is in worship.

Worship is not we just do for an hour or so on a Sunday morning, unless we are doing something else. Worship should pervade all that we are and all that we do. The ideal is that we spend every waking moment, and every sleeping one too, whatever we are doing in worship, in prayer.

Many like to set aside a time each day, in our room, in private, with the door closed, praying to our Father who is unseen. This is a good habit. As today’s psalm suggests, the morning may well be a good time. And if you don’t already do this, may I encourage you to begin. And every waking and sleeping moment, be conscious of the presence of our Father, be in worship, knowing that our God is with you, at your side, ready to speak, be ready to listen and respond. Worship enables us to hear His voice, and to be heard.

For prayer changes things. And for the better.