HOPE Point @Wesley Memorial UMC
February 19, 2017
Matthew 6: 5-15 (CEB)
5“When you pray, don’t be like hypocrites. They love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners so that people will see them. I assure you, that’s the only reward they’ll get. 6But when you pray, go to your room, shut the door, and pray to your Father who is present in that secret place. Your Father who sees what you do in secret will reward you.
7“When you pray, don’t pour out a flood of empty words, as the Gentiles do. They think that by saying many words they’ll be heard. 8Don’t be like them, because your Father knows what you need before you ask. 9Pray like this:
Our Father who is in heaven,
uphold the holiness of your name.
10Bring in your kingdom
so that your will is done on earth as it’s done in heaven.
11Give us the bread we need for today.
12Forgive us for the ways we have wronged you,
just as we also forgive those who have wronged us.
13And don’t lead us into temptation,
but rescue us from the evil one.
14“If you forgive others their sins, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15But if you don’t forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your sins.
There’s an old word of wisdom about how to deal with anger. Most of you have probably heard it at some point before: “When you are angry, count to ten and take a deep breath before saying anything.” And, of course, the reason for that is that if we immediately respond in anger, we will act out of character, we can hurt people’s feelings unintentionally, and we will often say things we later regret. In fact, we don’t even have to be angry for those occasional “off-the-cuff” outbursts that get us into trouble. We all do this. Sometimes we just act before we think and it doesn’t turn out well.
Now, if we can do that in various ways in our lives, then it means it can also happen in our life of faith. We get so busy and distracted that we forget God’s calling, God’s direction, and God’s will for our lives as disciples. And before we know it, we’re off the path and into trouble. But it doesn’t have to be that way. During the month of February, we are looking in depth at Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the greatest collection of Christ’s teachings about God’s Kingdom and about discipleship. These are the words that are foundational to how we live as disciples, and this morning, we come to the heart of Jesus’ sermon, what we know as the “Lord’s Prayer.”
What Christ offers in this prayer is an outline, a model prayer for his followers. The intention is that this prayer can guide disciples in their personal prayer. Jesus takes time in the midst of his sermon to lay out very clear instructions for prayer, and I think it’s fair to say Christ does this because prayer is vitally important. We preachers spend a lot of time telling you it’s important to worship, and to give generously through tithes and offerings. We talk about the guiding role Scripture should play in our lives, and how we should strive to live like Christ. But I don’t feel like we talk about prayer in the same way. We DO prayer. And I think inherently, we all know it is vital that prayer be a regular part of our daily lives. Yet, I’m just not sure we really GET how crucial this is. Prayer is that practice that keeps us from reacting on impulse. Prayer keeps us connected to God. Prayer keeps us grounded in what is real and what matters. Prayer is our opportunity to find support in God’s presence, to offer gratitude amid life’s blessings, to seek guidance in the midst of uncertainty. Prayer is central to our life of faith.
Jesus gives us this prayer here in the Sermon on the Mount as a model for our regular prayer, and we will look at that in-depth in a minute, but I think one of the most important things Jesus teaches here is right at the beginning. He says, “When you pray, don’t be like hypocrites. They love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners so that people will see them. I assure you, that’s the only reward they’ll get. But when you pray, go to your room, shut the door, and pray to your Father who is present in that secret place.” Prayer is not some formal practice. It is an intimate conversation between us and God the Father. We don’t have to make a big show about it; we don’t have to get dressed up to pray; we don’t have to go over to the church; we don’t have to say certain fancy words to impress anyone who just might be standing nearby. We simply need to be in a place and in a state of mind where all of our focus is on God, even if it’s just for a few seconds. Jesus says go in a quiet room behind closed doors. If that’s what you need to do, then do it, but the main point Jesus is making is get yourself into a place where you are not distracted, where you are not trying to impress others or make yourself look good; get to a place where you can put all your focus on God, and just pray.
I don’t know about you, but I’m just really not good at this. And so my prayer life suffers because I don’t pray as much as I could. I am not intentional about “pausing” life for a few moments solely to focus on God. But there are other challenges, too, that can dampen our prayer life; if we feel like we are not “good” at praying, or if we think we are not worthy of praying to God. These are all real possibilities, but friends, Christ deals with them all right here. And what it comes down to is that prayer is so personal and so intimate, nothing, absolutely nothing should stop us from praying to God our Father. As Christ says, God knows what we need before we ask, and we should find comfort in that. Prayer is our opportunity to have a conversation with God just like we would have a conversation with a dear friend.
So Jesus goes on to offer to us a model for our prayer. The Lord’s Prayer is prayed by Christians around the world on a regular basis—weekly, if not daily, or more. And Christians have been praying this prayer for millennia. Because of the widespread use of the Lord’s Prayer, I think we have come to view it not so much as an outline, or model, but instead as a formula—a prayer in its own right. And I think we often rattle it off without much thought to exactly what we are saying. But this prayer has meaning and significance far beyond the words we recite in worship each week because this prayer can guide our own personal prayer.
So let’s look at the outline Jesus gives us. The first thing to note is that this prayer begins with God. “Our Father, who is in heaven….” If we don’t get our focus on God from the very beginning, then prayer can quickly collapse into random, self-centered thoughts. And remember, one of the main purposes of prayer is to keep us from getting distracted in life. But here’s the thing about praying to and honoring God—if we are going to pray to our God, then our prayers can’t only be about us; they must include the well-being of the whole world because God desires the transformation of all of creation. Ultimately, this is a prayer for the kingdom of God to become fully present, and that will always begin and end with God. So much of prayer is placing ourselves in God’s presence; we can’t do this without naming, calling upon, and honoring God. “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name…”
Once we have named and honored God, the Lord’s Prayer directs us to pray for the realization of God’s work. Again, this gets the focus off of us, and reminds us of God’s plan for the world. I don’t know if there’s any greater petition that we could ever pray than “thy will be done.” I also think this is the hardest thing to pray. Usually, when we go to God in prayer, we have our desired outcome in mind, and it’s nothing more than exactly what we want; a fat bonus, better grades, a win for our favorite sports team, healing for our loved one who is ill (maybe even terminally ill), whatever. And we know that we will be disappointed and maybe even angry if we don’t get what we want. But the hard truth is that sometimes, God’s will is very different from what we desire. To pray, “Bring in your kingdom so that your will is done on earth as it is in heaven,” that requires immense faith. Such a prayer necessitates a willingness to surrender fully to God’s ways and to offer our whole lives unreservedly to our Father. By its very nature, prayer places our lives and our desires in God’s hands and God’s realm, which is exactly where we need to be; otherwise, our lives get off track.
After we have given praise and honor to God and petitioned for God’s ongoing work in the world, then Christ directs us to pray for our own needs. But note these are not extravagant petitions. We are led only to ask for what we need day by day until God’s saving work is completed; food for nourishment, forgiveness for our sins, freedom from temptation. Notice, friends, this is not about extravagant comforts in this life, but about the freedom we need to follow God fully, without distraction or reservation. Despite all that the world tells us, we do not need a lavish lifestyle; the most important thing for each of us is humble faith in a God who cares for us and always has our well-being in mind.
At its core, prayer is asking God for the appropriate things. God knows our need, but there are some things we simply need to pray for—for our own well-being. And what Christ shows us in the Lord’s Prayer is that there’s not some fancy formula for prayer, we should simply use our ordinary language to have a conversation with God. Prayer is deep, but at the same time elegantly simply and straightforward. Prayer places us in God’s realm and there God hears us and cares for us. We don’t need big words, flashy platforms, or complex formulae.
Jesus doesn’t tell us when to pray, or how often to pray; ultimately, that is up to us. But here’s what I’ve come to believe about prayer—it should be as much a part of our life as the air we breath. Whether that means we set aside some time for prayer first thing in the morning when we wake up or last thing in the evening before we turn out the light. Whether that means we make a conscious effort several times throughout the day to offer brief prayers, or we build a prayer altar in our homes. We don’t have to do anything complicated, Christ has given us the outline to follow. We just have to figure out what works for us and then do our best to get it done. This is central to our life as disciples. We have to make God a part of our lives in prayer so that we can share in God’s life in the world.
Will you pray the Lord’s Prayer with me?