Prayer, Fear, and Forgiveness

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As we look at and hear the daily news reports of escalating violence, disease, famine, and global climate alteration it can be very easy to allow fear and despair to overtake us. The world we live in can be harsh, and humanity is the scariest element. We do so much damage to each other and the world around us that giving up on people can seem to be the best strategy for maintaining our sanity. Often our prayers become pleas for protection and expressions of fear, but we serve God. We serve the God whose messengers always have to begin their message with the words “Do not be afraid.” The fear of the Lord may be the beginning of knowledge, but it is not the end of knowledge. The fear of the Lord is not being afraid of something that can harm us, but is instead the reverential awe of being in the presence of the love that brought the universe into existence. I am not saying that we should not fear God, but that we should not be afraid of the God who so loved the world that he gave up everything, even the life of that part of the Godhead we refer to as Jesus, so that we might not perish but have everlasting life. We serve the Jesus who was introduced to this world with an angel chorus whose opening words were “Do not be afraid.” We serve the Jesus that taught us that unlike others in this world, our prayer was to be different. Our prayer is to help us surrender to God’s agenda, to express our trust in his care, to lead us in forgiveness, and to protect us from the attitudes of domination and control so rampant in the world around us. Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount gives us teaching and a prayer that leads us in these things.

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 evil.’14 For if you forgive other people 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. Matthew 6:5-15

Jesus is continuing his discussion of acts of public piety and how they are abused by changing the focus from attempting to control others through giving to attempts to control others through prayer. Now Jesus had a lot to say about public prayer, but the core underlying his critique is that the Jews had forgotten the true purpose of prayer: To converse with God and to place our inmost being in his hands. The hypocrites that Jesus decries are people who are masking gossip and sermonizing in prayer. They are trying to control others’ behavior or attitudes towards the one praying, and this is decidedly unhelpful. Jesus reminds us to keep things simple and direct, that the less we pray in public and the more we pray in private the better our communication with God is. He reminds us that we don’t need extravagance or eloquence, a simple expression of trust in God will suffice. Of course he is also reminding us that the only one whom our prayers are to be directed at is God.

This leads us to Jesus comparison with the Gentile prayers. In ancient times the Greeks and Romans used prayers to try to control their gods. They had long formulaic prayers designed to force a god to act on behalf of a supplicant. They figured that if they pestered a god with all the right words and phrases the god would eventually grant the petitioner their desire. We see a similar pattern in the modern prosperity gospel movement in which if you pray the right prayers in the right ways then God will do what you ask of him. In this type of prayer God is relegated to the status of cosmic vending machine in which you drop your money in the slot, press the right prayer button and out pops what you asked for. Jesus reminds us that the God who knitted us together in our mother’s womb might just have an inkling of what is on our minds before we open our mouths, and that there might just be a very good reason why God isn’t about to get on board with our purposes and desires that we tend to ask for in theologically prettied up language. God sees to the heart, knows our heart, and knows what will cause us to best reflect the image of God.

In order to get us into a better frame of mind which is better aligned with God’s purposes and God’s desires Jesus gives his disciples a prayer. This prayer is one that most of us who have been around the church for a while can recite by heart, but I have to ask myself how seriously I pray it. Our Daddy, the word “Abba” that we translate as father is not a formal address, but is the familiar address of child to parent. Our Daddy whose very presence is that state of joy we call heaven, may we honor your name above all others. The presence of God is so holy that nothing unloving can withstand it. Is that not our hearts desire, to have every unloving thing removed from us so that we might experience the fullness of God’s presence? Is the cry of our hearts that God’s rule come and be as visible on this earth as it is in his unfiltered presence? There is absolutely no need to be afraid in God’s presence if we truly see him as the “Abba” who loves us. When we allow that perfect love of God to drive out the fears in our hearts, even that fear of letting him down, we can truly begin to pray for the active presence of God’s will and the rule of his love to be made manifest in this world.

The simple beauty of this prayer is that it puts God first. How God’s heart must melt for us when we come to him and tell him “Daddy, I love you more than anything else. I know you have so much love that I want to see it fill the world.” When we pray as Jesus teaches us we place ourselves into the hands of the most secure love we can ever experience, and if we remember that as we pray, we will seek to see those loving priorities enacted in the world around us. In this prayer we are laying everything on the altar before God and saying I only want your rule and your will, so I surrender to you my desire for control and my will so that only what is of you will be displayed in my life. This is a prayer of the deepest trust friends, and we must pray it from the depths of our souls.

The next piece is rather interesting in its use of the plural. Jesus is reminding us that we are part of an interconnected system and that in our prayers for sustenance our focus cannot be solely on ourselves. God give all of us what we need to sustain us through this day. This is one that convicted me as I prepared for this sermon. How often do my prayers center on getting what is needed for me and my family, and how often am I praying for everyone else to get what they need. I fall short because I listen to those “Me first” messages that our culture bombards us with. Jesus is helping me correct that and pray “give us.” We forget that there is enough in God to sustain all of us and we get caught up in a false sense of scarcity. When we pray “Give US this day” we place our hearts and lives at the center of God’s generous heart.

Speaking of the center of God’s generous heart we now get to the part about forgiveness. Forgive us the debt we owe you as we forgive those who owe us. Man is that ever tough. Is that something I really want to pray, or do I really want to collect on what is owed to me. To be honest this cannot be prayed outside of connection with God. We do not have it within us to forgive others, but this prayer that Jesus gives us as a template for our understanding of prayer leaves no wiggle room. God help me to forgive so that I may be part of your plan of forgiveness for the world. There is no human being on earth that God does not desire to extend his forgiveness to, and often in order for others to believe this forgiveness is possible, they need to experience it from us. I have to ask myself who it is that I really don’t want to extend forgiveness to and then I remember a testimony that I read. It is from Corrie Ten Boom’s book Tramp for the Lord and it tells of confronting a long standing grudge. The title of the chapter is The Blacks and Whites of Forgiveness Corrie tells the story of her struggle to forgive some Christians friends that had wronged her andhow even ten years later couldn’t let it go. Finally, she was speaking with a friend who was familiar with the situation who asked if she had forgiven them. She said she had, and the friend asked if they had received her forgiveness to which she replied that they see nothing to forgive, but she had these letters that contained in black and white everything they did.

“Corrie!” My friend slipped his arm through mine and gently closed the drawer. “Aren’t you the one whose sins are at the bottom of the sea? Yet are the sins of your friends etched in black and white?” For an astonishing moment I could not find my voice. “Lord Jesus,” I whispered at last, “who takes all my sins away, forgive me for preserving all these years the evidence against others! Give me grace to burn all the blacks and whites as a sweet-smelling sacrifice to Your Glory.” (Ten Boom 1974, 275)

It is so tempting to hold on to grudges, to take what we need without considering the needs of others and to put our will and our desires for control over God’s. When we fall into this temptation we open ourselves up to an unhealthy fear that tells us others are out to get us, that if we don’t grab for what we can we will have nothing, and that God desires punishment over forgiveness. Jesus closes his instruction on prayer with a cry to God to lead us away from temptations and be delivered from those sly voices that find echoes within our hearts to amplify our fears. Delivery from evil and in some translations the evil one is one of God’s purposes and Jesus gives us the gateway to it. If we want to see God’s forgiveness we must bear God’s forgiveness and remember the words of Paul from Romans 5

6 You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. 8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! 10 For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! 11 Not only is this so, but we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. Romans 5:6-11

Jesus is teaching us how to pray and be a credible witness to reconciliation with God. While we are on this earth we have work to do and Jesus acknowledges here just how impossible it is to accomplish that work on our own. So let us remember to pray the simplest prayer of surrender to the love of our God who desires to forgive. Allow his perfect love to cast out the fears dumped on us in the news, the fears of loss and the fears of losing control. In his hands things will always turn out better for us than in ours.

After praying together the words on the screen together we will begin our open worship with five minutes of silence. For more information on this time please check the blue pamphlet in the seat back holders in front of you. After five minutes someone will stand with the microphone and if you feel a leading to share, please rise and wait for the microphone to be brought to you. Let us 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 evil.’” Matthew 6:9b-13 Amen

Works Cited

Ten Boom, Corrie. Tramp for the Lord. Grand Rapids, MI: Fleming H. Revell, 1974.

 

 

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2 responses to “Prayer, Fear, and Forgiveness

  1. Thanks. I enjoyed this. The part of the Lord’s Prayer about forgiveness seems dangerous to pray. It doesn’t ask for unconditional forgiveness, but only for forgiveness to the extent we’ve forgiven others. Wow.

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