Prayer is one of those big Religious words that is almost guaranteed to get a reaction of some kind when you mention it. Those reactions can range from a vague feeling of guilt that we don’t pray enough, to a sense of frustration with not seeing results for the things we try to faithfully speak of in God’s presence, to a comforting sense of God’s presence. Often we are influenced by many teachings about prayer, but don’t necessarily make the connection between what we say or listen for in our prayers and the life changing power that is demonstrated in the Old and New Testaments. There are times when we wonder whether God listens, is there, or cares about us, and sometimes the way we pray and the state of our thoughts raises barriers within us in which we try to drown out what God has to speak into our lives. When my dad passed away I made God aware that I wasn’t interested in hearing from Him for a while, and didn’t even try to listen or pray. God forgave me and I think was pretty understanding of the state of my grief at the time. The scripture we are going to read was one that helped draw me back and lay down some of the barriers I had raised. Jesus knew that prayer was often used in ways that put barriers up between us and God, which tried to put God under obligation to us. “See God, I said the right prayer, now you do what I asked you to.” Has anyone in here not had some variation of that attitude at some point in their prayer life? Jesus knew his disciples, and when he trained them, he tried to correct some of the common attitudes that broke relationship with God rather than helped build it. Turn with me to Matthew chapter 6.
5“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 7“When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. 8Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
9“Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. 10Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. 11Give us this day our daily bread. 12And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 13And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from evil. 14For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; 15but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (Matthew 6:5-15)
The first thing Jesus addresses here are the inadequate “Whys” of prayer that he has witnessed and proposes something different. Jesus addresses an attitude of hypocrisy that makes a great public show of piety in order to receive attention from others. This kind of prayer is not done to build relationship with God or give God the glory, but is at its heart self-glorification. These Pharisees were praying out loud and in public so that the people around them would remark on how holy these guys were. The sad truth here is that in their efforts to assert a sense of their own holiness they disconnected themselves from relationship with the Holy God. When we pray Jesus asks us to remember that our prayers aren’t means of drawing attention to ourselves, but are intimate conversations with God. Conversations that when we take them into our private places, away from the distractions of the social spheres we operate in; we enter into relationship with God and even get to hear his voice speak into our lives. Can there be any greater reward?
The next attitude that Jesus seeks to change is that of trying to control God. When the Romans and Greeks prayed it was for a specific purpose to get a god or goddess to do something for them. While I am sure that none of us has ever prayed only because we wanted something from God, the Greeks took it a bit farther than just making requests; through their prayers and incantations they were actively seeking to control their gods. There is a fine line between making our requests known and making demands of God, and Jesus reminds his disciples of the depth of intimacy they have with God.
1O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
2You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.
3You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.
4Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.
5You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.
6Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.
13For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.
15My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
16Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-16
The one who made us, who designed us, surly knows the needs that exist in us, maybe even better than we ourselves know. Jesus felt that his disciples, including us, need the reminder that God is not only beyond our control, but is intimately connected with us, knowing what we need before we do. These two attitudes of seeking to control others and God, Jesus counters with a different kind of prayer.
The Lord’s Prayer has often been seen as a formula that we use to pray right so that God will hear us, but that goes right against what Jesus said in the previous verses. This prayer is not about getting ourselves to a place from which God will listen to us, but is a surrender of all the things that prevent us from listening to God. Jesus intent is not to give us yet one more formula, but to help form our attitudes into the best possible to live in relationship with God. The first of these is in how we approach God. Jesus later goes on to tell his disciples that they must become like little children to enter the kingdom, and that means realizing that God is OUR Father. When we come to prayer it is not from a position of power, but a position of being a child of the God who was, is and is to come. We may not be able to perceive the unseen part of reality in which God dwells, but he loves all of his children. Through that great love His name is set apart from all other names for the greatest honor. In this first sentence we begin with the acknowledgement of our rightful place in the universe giving glory and honor to the God who brought us into being and loves us.
The next sentence flows from the first, that because we are God’s children it is our desire to see the fullness of what it means to be a child of God enter every human interaction. It must become our desire to see God’s will come about as easily recognized here on earth as it is from an eternal perspective. This is where we say “God we come into your Holy presence to surrender our perspective in favor of yours. You are not only our father, but the Lord of our lives.” When we pray in this way we are asking God to bring a change not only in the world, but in our perception of the world. We are releasing all claims on God’s world in favor of the claim God has on our hearts.
Not only are we to release all claims on our agenda for the world, in the next line Jesus redirects us to the source of life for what we need to get through the day. The line give us today our daily bread is a statement of trust in God’s provision and a resolution to use any excess for God’s kingdom purposes. The next line says “Give us this day our daily bread”, but what it means is “Give us what we need and help us not to hold on to what we don’t need.” When we ask for and seek more than what we need, we are making a statement of distrust. By asking God strictly for what we need to live into his purposes for our lives today, we boldly proclaim that we trust God to provide for us and that His will is sufficient.
The next claim on the world we are to release is what we feel others owe us. “Forgive us what we owe as we forgive those who owe us.” This conditional statement is designed to help us release the sense of wounding, the sense of being entitled to an apology, an explanation, or even a real financial debt. I don’t think anyone of us will argue with the statement that we specifically live in an entitled culture, and while some of us believe that we might even have gone and found somewhere even beyond entitlement, I would like to guess that entitlement is a part of the human condition. Jesus felt the need to address that sense multiple times throughout his ministry, and even if we look through the earliest scriptures we see people who think they are entitled to something from God or others. This entitlement is an inherent devaluing of others and an elevation of the needs and desires of the self. In this prayer Jesus is helping us to let go of our entitlement and accept the responsibility for making the first step to forgive. Give forgiveness before you receive the apology, give forgiveness before you demand an explanation, give forgiveness before you demand repayment. Then you free yourself of those burdens, and can receive the forgiveness that God offered to us before we were even born.
None of these attitude changes can come in our own power. These require the help of God, we need to also ask God to protect us from those things that tempt us away from God, that tempt us from sacrificing what we want in favor of God’s will. We cannot honor God as OUR Father without His help. We cannot seek first His kingdom without His guidance. We cannot rely on God’s provision or release the obligations we feel others have towards us without the protection and intervention of God in the basic processes of thought. Without God’s aid we are easily beguiled by the wiles of evil and self-centered thought.
So when we pray, let us seek to allow our time with God to transform us and be times in which we listen more than speak, and that when we get up from prayer are people who have let go of the agendas of the world and self, and have accepted the will, provision, forgiveness, and protection of the God who loves us. When we come to God seeking his agenda rather than our own, our prayer will transform not only us, but the world as well.