Lord, Teach Us to Pray (1)

            The 11th chapter of the gospel of Luke begins with these words:  “Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray…’” (Luke 11:1)

            The disciples had been with Jesus for months, maybe even years at this point. They had watched him pray in every circumstance of life.  They had seen him take time to be alone to pray.  They understood that Jesus lived a life that was guided and empowered by prayer.  And I get the feeling as they watched Jesus pray, it made them realize just how little they knew about prayer.  And so, they asked him, “Lord teach us to pray.”

            Jesus, of course, was an expert at prayer. I mean, after all, he’d been talking to his Father ever since….well, ever since forever.  It only makes sense that his disciples would want to learn from Jesus how to pray.

            There may be some folks who don’t see the need to learn how to pray.  It makes about as much sense to them as taking lessons to learn how to breathe.  You don’t need any special instructions, you just do it.  You talk to God.  We don’t need any fancy formulas or techniques.  And I get that.

            On the other hand, there seem to be a lot of folks who are very interested in learning how to pray.  About 20 years ago, there was a book written about the prayer that Jabez prayed.  That book was so popular that it topped the New York Times bestseller list.

            More recently, there’s a popular book that uses Daniel’s prayer from Daniel chapter 9 as its model – The Daniel Prayer:  Prayer That Moves Heaven and Changes Nations.  So, I think there are plenty of people who want to learn how to pray.  And I think they’re all searching for a model of powerful prayer that “works.”

            Because a lot of us feel like Alan Redpath when he said, “When we have finished our praying we can scarcely bring ourselves to believe that our feeble words can have been heard, or that they can have made a difference in the things concerning which we have been praying. We’ve said our prayers but we have not prayed.” [Victorious Praying: Studies in the Lord’s Prayer]

            And it’s true that God answered the prayers of Jabez and Daniel.  They prayed some bold prayers, and big things happened.  And some of us want that kind of result when we pray.  We want our prayers to move heaven and change the nations.

            But if we’re going to learn how to pray, doesn’t it make sense that we should go to Jesus, just like his disciples did in Luke 11?   If we’re going to learn how to speak to our heavenly Father, why don’t we just take lessons from his Son?  

            And, the truth is, we do need lessons in how to pray.  In one of his letters, the apostle Paul wrote, “we do not know what to pray for as we ought” (Romans 8.26).  So, like the disciples, we need to ask Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray.” (Luke 11:1)

            Jesus’s response to their request was to give the disciples what we sometimes refer to as the Lord’s Prayer.  And I think it’s safe to say that most people who have been in church at any point in their lives are familiar with the Lord’s Prayer. 

“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread,
Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.

Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.”

                                                                                                                        (Matthew 6:9-13)

            I find it ironic that many people use the Lord’s Prayer in a way totally contrary to how Jesus taught us to pray.  In Matthew 6:7 (NASB), Jesus said, “when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition.”  And then right after that, he gave his disciples the Lord’s Prayer. 

            But what do people do with the Lord’s Prayer?  Well, a lot of times it gets used with meaningless repetition.  Which is to say, people repeat the words, but they don’t really understand what they’re saying.  They have no idea what “hallowed” means.  They ask God for “daily bread” but that’s not the kind of language that anybody uses when they’re talking in normal conversation.  And as a result, it’s possible for us to say this prayer, when what Jesus wants us to do is to pray this prayer.

            And, so, for the next several weeks, I want us to take a closer look at the Lord’s Prayer, not for the purpose of merely saying the words, but trying to understand what Jesus meant for us to actually be praying for.  And, as we do that, we’re going to ask Jesus to do for us what his disciples asked him to do for them, “Lord, teach us to pray.”

            Jesus began in Luke 11:2 by saying, “When you pray, say…”

1.         “Father”

            We’re probably more familiar with the version of this prayer in Matthew 6 where Jesus said, “Our Father in heaven,” but in Luke’s account, it’s just “Father.”

            When you’re praying, it helps to know who you’re praying to.  In fact, that’s probably the very first thing you need to know.

            We say that we’re praying to God, but which God is it that we are praying to?  Are we praying to the God envisioned by those folks who believe that God wound this world up like a clock and then he just lets it run without intervening, without interfering with anything or anyone in this world?

            What good is that kind of God when your child is sick or your heart is broken or your cupboards are bare?  What good does it do to pray to a God who is unmoved by your prayers and has no interest in being a part of your life?

            There are others who pray to the kind of God that Jonathan Edwards preached about — an angry God whose hands are full of sinners, ready and anxious to toss them into the fiery pit of hell.

            That kind of God might inspire terror, but why would you even consider praying to him?  You’d have a hard time believing that he loves you enough to listen to you!  He’s more apt to throw you into the lake of fire than he is to hear your prayers.  

            But, thankfully, Jesus doesn’t teach us to pray to an apathetic God nor to an angry God who barely tolerates our mere existence.  No, Jesus said, “When you pray, say: ‘Father.’” (Luke 11:2).  Wrapped up in that idea of “father” is an intimate relationship with God. 

            A few years ago, there was a German scholar who was doing research and he discovered that in the entire history of Judaism — in all existing books of the Old Testament and all existing books of other Jewish writings dating from the beginning of Judaism until the tenth century A.D. — there is not one single reference of a Jewish person addressing God directly in the first person as Father.

            Now, there are plenty of other appropriate forms of address that were used by Jewish people in the Old Testament – God Our King, Almighty God, Everlasting God, the God of Israel.  But never “Father”.  The first Jewish rabbi to call God “Father” directly was Jesus of Nazareth, and in almost every recorded prayer we have of Jesus, he refers to God as “Father.”  

            It was a radical departure from tradition, and it was for that reason that many of Jesus’ enemies sought to destroy him – because he assumed to have this intimate, personal relationship with the sovereign God of heaven and the creator of all things, and he dared to speak in such intimate terms with God.

            But what is even more radical than Jesus calling God, “Father” was Jesus to say to his disciples, “When you pray, say: ‘Father.’”  Jesus has given to us the right and privilege to come into the presence of Almighty God and address him as Father because indeed he is our Father.  He has adopted us into his family and made us his own.

            The same sort of intimacy that exists between a child and his or her father should exist between us and God.  The beginning of effective prayer is the recognition that God possesses a father’s heart, a father’s love, a father’s strength, a father’s concern for his children.

            I read an article this past week at a website called MomJunction which lists the qualities of a good father, and I thought it was a really good list.  And as I read through this list of qualities, I couldn’t help but think about how all of these attributes apply to God.  This article said that a good father:

1.      Is protective and considers his children’s best interest.  That certainly describes God.

2.      He is affectionate to his children.

3.      He is someone his children can trust.  Kids know that their father is always there whenever they want some help or whenever they are in trouble.

4.      He is a source of encouragement.

5.      He takes time to listen to his children.

6.      He provides the necessities of life.

            I think when Jesus referred to God as our Father, that’s what he had in mind.  Because God is a good father.  But, for some of us, the word “father” doesn’t conjure up those positive qualities, because unfortunately, our world is full of bad fathers.  For some of you, the word “father” may cause emotions to surface like fear, anger and hostility, maybe even hatred.

            Some of us had fathers who were selfish and were too wrapped up in their own interests to be there for us.  Some of us have suffered at the hands of our fathers. We’ve had fathers who have done shameful things to us. Who have wrecked us physically, emotionally, and spiritually.  Who have pushed us away.  Abandoned us.  Rejected us.  Walked away from us.  Thrown us away.

            Fathers who laid impossible expectations on us, and let us know over and over all the ways that we didn’t measure up.   And so, for some of you, the concept of God as Father may not provoke such a warm feeling.  And even the best of fathers will disappoint us at times.  

            And the tragedy is that by referring to God as our Father, we sometimes unconsciously transfer to him all those less-than-perfect attributes associated in our minds with earthly fathers.

            And, of course, we don’t do it deliberately.  But still, it happens.  And the fact remains that, to a large degree, our thoughts and ideas of God as our Father are conditioned by our childhood impressions and recollections of our rather frail and fallible human fathers. 

            And if that’s where you’re at — if what I’ve just described describes your relationship with your earthly father — please listen to this: God. Is. Not. Your. Father.  And by that, I mean, God is not a Father like your father.

            If your father — your earthly father — has hurt you, then it’s totally okay to begin with this — Jesus taught us to pray to his Father.

            Think about this.  Jesus took great delight in healing sick people and casting out demons.  He loved giving people their lives back.  Jesus took the time to love and appreciate the least of these.  The sick and the hungry and the outcasts and the losers and the sinners.  He elevated women and children in a culture where they were basically seen as property.  Jesus stood between a woman and an angry mob about to crush her to death with rocks.  And he drew a line in the sand as if to say, “If you want to hurt her, you’ll have to go through me.” 

            Jesus loved people even when it was inconvenient and it was dangerous and it outraged his neighbors.  He reached out to people his neighbors hated.  And even when they were nailing him to a cross, Jesus prayed to his Father: “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” 

            We know and love this Jesus. And Jesus wants us to know and love his Father.  And that’s why, as Jesus went around spreading love and light and life wherever he was, he said things like:

            “Whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise.” (John 5:19)

            “I and the Father are one.” (John 10:30)

            “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9)

            In other words, while he was on this earth, Jesus showed us what God the Father looks like.  Which means that our Father God is just as loving and kind as Jesus was.  And that’s the God that Jesus teaches us to pray to.  When you pray, say, “Father”.

            And then Jesus said to pray….

2.         “Hallowed be your name.”

            As I said earlier, this is definitely language that we don’t normally use.  What does the word “hallowed” even mean?  And even if we know that the word “hallowed” means the same as “holy” or “sanctified”, that still doesn’t help us to know what Jesus is telling us to pray.  What does it mean to pray to God, “Holy be your name”? 

            Make note – this is not the same thing as saying to God, “Your name is holy.”  That would be making a statement.  A true statement.  But Jesus is not telling us to make a declaration of truth, he’s telling us to make a request, a petition of God, “May your name be holy.” 

            But the idea of making God’s name holy almost sounds like heresy.  It almost sounds like we can somehow make God more holy and more majestic than he already is.  But that’s not what we mean when we say:  “Hallowed be your name.”  It’s not that God is made more holy than he already is, but that he is made more holy than we have imagined him to be.  He becomes more glorious in our eyes.

            The New Living Translation says, “May your name be kept holy.”  The Good News translation says, “May your holy name be honored.”  Perhaps the Contemporary English Version has it best when it says, “Help us to honor your name.”

            As Isaiah said in Isaiah 8, “The LORD Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy.” (Isaiah 8:13, NIV)

            But that still leaves us with an important question — what does it mean to treat God as holy?  What are we asking God to do when we pray that he would cause his name to be treated as holy?

            To answer that question, I want to look at four passages from the Old Testament.

a.         Numbers 20:12 

            During the time that children of Israel wandered through the wilderness, there was a time when they had no water.  And the people grumbled against Moses.  So, God told Moses to speak to the rock and to bring forth water for the people.  But Moses got angry and he spoke rashly and he struck the rock twice with his rod.

            The Israelites received water, but Moses also received a strong rebuke from God.  God said, “Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.” (Numbers 20:12)

            Notice those words: “You did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy.”  That gives us our first answer to the question, “What it means to sanctify or hallow the name of God?”  It means to believe him.  The first way we treat God as holy is to trust what he says.

            In I John 5:10, John said, “Whoever does not believe God has made him a liar.”  When you call somebody a liar, you profane that person’s name, which is the very opposite of treating that person as holy.  Not trusting God is the exact opposite of hallowing his name.  So, the first thing we mean, then, when we pray for God to cause his name to be hallowed is that he would help us as his people to believe him, to trust him.

b.         Isaiah 8:12-13

            God spoke to Isaiah and warned him not to be like the people of Israel.  He said, “Do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread.  But the Lord of hosts, him you shall honor as holy. Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread.” (Isaiah 8:12-13)

            How do you honor God as holy according to this text?  You honor him as holy by not fearing what men fear but by fearing God.  That means that when God commands you to take your stand for him, you’re more afraid of displeasing God than you’re afraid of what men can do to you.  It means living out what Peter and the other apostles said in Acts 5:29, “We must obey God rather than men.”

            So, when we pray, “Hallowed be your name,” we mean, “Father, let your name be feared.”  Or, more fully, “Father, may people have such a high view of you that they understand it is a much more dreadful thing to lose your approval than to lose anything this world has to offer.”

c.         Leviticus 22:31-32

            “So you shall keep my commandments and do them: I am the Lord.  And you shall not profane my holy name, that I may be sanctified [or hallowed] among the people of Israel. I am the Lord who sanctifies you.” (Leviticus 22:31-32)

            The way God’s children live in this world has the power to profane our Father’s name, or to make it holy.  We hallow the name of God when we keep his commandments. We profane the name of God when we break his commandments.  

            In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said to “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16).  God’s holy name is upheld in the world through the obedience of his children.  So, when we pray, “Father, hallowed be your name” we mean, “Father, help us to obey your commandments.”

            Jesus gave us these words to pray, because when we pray them, we’re asking our Father for the grace to empower us to live and work in ways that testify to his holiness.  Our Father God wants his children to bear a family resemblance to him.

d.         Ezekiel 36:22-24

            But, it’s not just what we do that makes God’s name holy.  It’s what God does.  When Jesus prayed, “Hallowed be your name”, he wasn’t just saying that we need to make God’s name holy.  It is a request to God that he would see to it that his name is hallowed.

            The Common English Bible translates this phrase:  “Uphold the holiness of your name.”  We ask God to be true to himself so that his honor is intact.

            In the days of the prophet Ezekiel, God’s people had abandoned God and so they were scattered among the nations as exiles.  Listen to what God told his scattered children through the prophet.

            “It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came.  And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the Lord… when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes.  I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land.” (Ezekiel 36:22-24) 

            God’s children had failed to live up to our God’s holy name, which they bore.  But God made his name holy again by rescuing them from exile.  A major part of what makes God holy — what makes him different and special — is that he is fiercely loyal to his children, and all of his creation.

            As Paul said in 2 Timothy 2:13, “If we are faithless, he remains faithful — for he cannot deny himself.”  When we call upon our Father to uphold the holiness of his name, we are asking him to rescue and liberate and heal and redeem and restore.  Not only our lives, but everything he has made.

            To pray: Father, uphold the holiness of your name; is to say:  “Father God, be present in our world, in our time; so that the world will see your goodness and greatness; and give you praise!”

            The disciples came to Jesus for a lesson in prayer.  And so, Jesus taught them the Lord’s Prayer.  Praying this prayer isn’t a magic spell, but I do believe that it’s powerful, and that it can transform us.

            But here’s where I find the deepest value in this prayer.  Earlier in Luke, we find two greatest commands:  “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” (Luke 10:27)

            The greatest value of the Lord’s Prayer lies in its ability to draw our attention away from our own needs and longings and desires; and focus our attention on what God desires and our neighbors need. The Lord’s Prayer helps form our character so that our capacity to love God and our neighbors grows.

            The Lord’s Prayer teaches us that prayer isn’t about me; what I want, or what I think I need.  Prayer is always about God, to God, and for God.  Prayer isn’t something we do to try to pressure God into seeing things our way.  

            Prayer doesn’t just invite God into our lives or hearts.  Rather, when we pray, we are brought into God’s life.  As we pray the prayer Jesus gave us, we are drawn by Jesus into the Father’s life and heart through the Holy Spirit.  And the words Jesus gave us to say really do matter.  When we speak those words, they have the power to change our attitude.  And our attitude shapes our actions.  

            So, let’s go to Jesus for praying lessons. And let us pray the prayer he gave us. But let us also remember that when we pray, “Father, uphold the holiness of your name”, what we are really praying is, “Father, give us the grace to think and live and act in ways that lead us to feel at home with you; and that welcome you so that you can be at home among us.” 

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