How many of you lost sleep watching the Olympic Games this past week? Rarely do the ‘tribes and nations of the world’ become so preoccupied with themselves as much as during this once-each-four-year happening.
Communicating across languages was a problem sometimes (as when an Australian baseball coach tried to tell a non-English-speaking judge that the ball actually touched the fence, and was therefore not a ‘fair catch’.)
I’ve heard there are only about four words common to all languages – ‘Amen’, ‘Alleluia’, ‘OK’, and ‘Coca Cola’.
But on this Sunday a form of words will be said by over one billion people in about 2,000 languages. We call it ‘The Lord’s Prayer’. Catholics call it the ‘Our Father’.
Back to the Games. In the Chicago Tribune there’s a story American javelin thrower Breaux Greer wrote about on his first night in the Olympic Village. ‘My roommate from a North African country checked in at 1.30 am and began praying while watching pornography. True story. I told him he had to pick one or the other.’
Can you pray the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ and be thinking of something else? Of course. That’s partly why the ‘nonconformist’ churches have been suspicious of ‘rote prayers’. I often heard in my childhood ‘Those other churches say the Lord’s Prayer mindlessly: it doesn’t mean anything!’ They had a point. But interestingly, the Catholic ‘Office for the Catechism’ warns us that it is not a prayer to be repeated mechanically.
But the alternative creates another problem: ignoring this great prayer in our private and public worship is not a good idea. We ought to pray it regularly (I use it every day) engaging our minds with each word and phrase. That’s what I hope to do with you this morning.
My pastoral calling involves trying to answer five questions: how do the best-put-together people/marriages/families/pastors and churches get to be like that?
In terms of healthy churches, the simplest answer is: they are passionate about doing in their world what Jesus did in his. And as followers of Jesus they are always asking the two questions Jesus’ ancient disciples asked to be put into his theological curriculum for them: ‘Lord, increase our faith!’ and ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples!’
In healthy churches the pastor is not primarily a CEO managing an institution, but is a theologian and spiritual director. As theologian he/she is an expert in the Bible and how God’s truth relates to people’s lives. Spiritual directors help us relate to God, by essentially asking one basic question: ‘What happens when you pray?’
Prayer for most Christians is not easy. Jacques Ellul in his brilliant book ‘Prayer and Modern Man’ says there’s only one reason to pray – obedience. We are commanded to pray by our Lord.
And the best advice I’ve ever read/heard is English Benedictine monk Dom John Chapman’s: ‘Pray as you can, not as you can’t!’
Prayer for others is very powerful. I had a mother who prayed for me more than I pray for myself! What a privilege! (She died a couple of years ago, and would have been 93 today).
So Jesus offered this simple prayer as a guide. With the ‘Jesus Prayer’ (‘Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner!’) it is the most widely used Christian prayer throughout the world.
The best-known traditional version of the Lord’s Prayer:
Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us, and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory For ever and ever. Amen.
And the most common modern version:
Our Father in heaven
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread,
And forgive us our sins
as we forgive those who sin against us.
Save us from the time of trial,
and deliver us from evil.
For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours
now and for ever. Amen.
Matthew (6:9-13) and Luke (11:2-4) have slightly different versions. Matthew has Jesus warning us against praying ostentatiously, as the Jewish Pharisees did: God’s not necessarily impressed with public, fluent prayers. Rather, go into the pantry – the only room in the house with a door – and pray there. Jesus also warns against a common Gentile practice – piling up ‘meaningless words’ – with a long list of names and terms for God so that they wouldn’t omit the correct one. So against these two practices Jesus gives us a prayer that is short, sharp and to the point.
Luke has Jesus offering this prayer to the disciples in response to their request to teach them how to pray.
Matthew’s prayer has seven petitions, Luke’s five.
Neither has the doxology at the end: this was added by the early church, as recorded in The Didache and The Apostolic Constitutions.
The Lord’s Prayer is really a summary of the whole gospel. There’s nothing that’s important about God and us and prayer that isn’t included.
Let us look at each of the three ‘strophes’.
1. PETITIONS TO GOD
Matthew begins with ‘Our': we pray as a family, rather than as individuals. ‘I’, ‘me’ ‘my’ are nowhere in this prayer. And the Bible doesn’t use the phrase ‘receiving Jesus as my personal Saviour’. We in the modern Western world need to look again at our individualistic, privatised version of Christianity.
‘Father’ – the word is ‘Abba’. It’s a term never used as a form of address to God in Judaism: it was thought to be too familiar. God is not simply ‘daddy’ – God as father loves and protects us, yes, but is also (like fathers in all cultures not influenced by Dagwood Bumstead images), to be obeyed and treated with respect.
And let us not forget those who cannot pray to God as Father because of the abuse they received from an earthly father. On my first trip to New York iu the 1970s a Presbyterian pastor told me their version for slum-kids in Harlem began: ‘God in Heaven, who loves us like our grandmother does…’
The first three petitions are about God – God’s name, God’s kingdom, and God’s will: these are actually parallel expressions, meaning roughly the same thing.
God’s ‘name’ refers to the character and power of God (over demonic and human powers).
God’s Kingdom is God’s reign or rule (we are God’s subjects).
‘Your will be done’ is the cry especially of the persecuted church. And of the suffering Christ in Gethsemane. God’s people cry out to their Father and King when other ‘powers’ attack them.
And these petitions also suggest that we are to work hard to see that God’s will is done in our world/s: ‘Lord, build a better world, and begin with me. Revive your church, and begin with me.’
2. OUR DAILY NEEDS
The second strophe comprises four petitions relating to our daily needs. (‘It is a mistake’, Archbishop William Temple used to say, ‘to think that God was only interested in religion.’)
Notice again it is *our* bread, *our* sins, *our* time of trial.
The word ‘daily’ is only here in the New Testament. Scholars suggest the phrase means ‘Give us today the food we need for tomorrow.’ That is, help us to find work so that we can eat. Working is not a result of the ‘Fall': Adam was told to ‘work’ in the Garden of Eden. It’s work ‘by the sweat of our brow’ – work which is unfulfilling – which is a concomitant of the Fall.
Living in day-tight compartments is one of the best practical bits of advice Jesus offers us. Notice he doesn’t encourage us to pray for a week’s food. Again, Jesus speaking to the poor – rather than to people who have refrigerators and freezers full of food! One billion people live on the edge of starvation. I believe it’s important for each family to contribute to the poor. A statistic I saw this week: more than 30 million children each year get no immunizations in their first year: 10% of these will die, for lack of a $30 vaccination.
Forgiving and being forgiven is the only petition with a condition. In Luke it’s ‘forgive us our sins'; in Matthew – ‘forgive us our debts’ – literally it refers to ‘monetary debt'; figuratively sin is ‘moral debt’.
What a dangerous petition: we’re asking God to forgive us in proportion as we forgive others. If we refuse to forgive others, we are asking God not to forgive us. Robert Louis Stevenson said he once stopped abruptly in the middle of the Lord’s Prayer when he came to this petition: ‘I’m not fit to pray the Lord’s Prayer today’ he said.
(Who said ‘You love God just as much and no more than you love the person you love least’?)
John Claypool in a sermon entitled ‘Responding Creatively to Evil’ and in his book Mending the Heart writes about an old movie ‘Stars in My Crown’ which ‘portrays life in one frontier community where a valuable deposit of copper was discovered. It ran straight under the little parcel of land on which an elderly black believer lived. It was the only home he’d ever known. So when several local business leaders offered to buy the man’s property, he refused. When they couldn’t buy out the old man, the businessmen resorted to intimidation. They posted a note on the door that if he wasn’t off the property by sundown the next night, members of the local Ku Klux Klan would hang him from the nearest tree. ‘The minister of his church got wind of this. The next night he was there at the house with the old man when the hooded figures arrived.
‘He told them his friend had asked him to prepare a will to read to them before they hung him. The old man willed the property to the businessmen, left his rifle to another person, his fishing rod to a third and so on-lovingly relinquishing everything he had to those who’d come to take his life.
‘The impact was incredible. Seeing goodness offered in the face of such evil was more than even those greedy men could swallow, and one by one, in shameful silence, the lynch-mob slipped into the darkness.
‘The old preacher’s grandson had been watching this whole drama at a distance, and after the crisis had passed and the two men had gone back into the house, the little boy came running up and asked breathlessly “What kind of will was that, Granddaddy?” To which the old man answered softly, “The will of God, son, the will of God.”‘
Claypool goes on to talk about an ‘asymetrical approach’ to the barbaric treatment we sometimes receive from others. ‘If we allow the worst to pull us down to its level, adopt its methodology, goading us in indignation to imitate the very things we abhor, then what happens is that beastiality finally wins the day. But if we believe that what goodness can do to evil is more powerful in the end than what evil can do to goodness… creativity will win over destruction…
‘Please do not hear me promising anything simple or automatic. Those who dare to go this way may suffer incredibly at the hands of barbarians, but even if they go down, at least they have not added to the sum total of destruction, and they have offered an alternative that could make the difference.’
Then we pray for deliverance from tests/trials/temptations. In the Bible we read that Satan tests us, and God also ‘tests’ us. The difference is in the ‘testing’s’ purpose. Satan tests or tempts us so that we might fail. God’s testings are designed to refine us.
We read in the early church father Tertullian: ‘For we have in fact the case (and the Lord is witness) of that woman, who went to the gladiatorial shows and returned devil-possessed. So, when the unclean spirit was being exorcised and was pressed with the accusation that he had dared to enter a woman who believed; “and I was quite right, too,” said he boldly; “for I found her on my own ground.”‘
It’s not fashionable among the theological elite to believe in the reality of Satan. But I believe Satan is a malevolent, angelic creature whose purpose is to thwart the will of God. Last week we had some friends visit us. One said he couldn’t understand how a human being could endure what Jesus Christ suffered in the depiction of his flogging in The Passion of the Christ. Another – a specialist counsellor of survivors of ritual, sexual and Satanic abuse – responded that there are millions of people who suffer physically and emotionally much more. She told of a client who as a little girl was a victim of a Satanic ritual where she was hung upside down next to a dead body on a cross – which had been there several days. And as she was hanging there the most despicable atrocities were committed against her. Richard Wurmbrand used to tell of many Christians in communist countries who’d suffered physically more than Christ. It was Christ’s spiritual suffering – bearing the sins of the world – which was utterly unique, of course.
So when we pray about ‘testing’ let us remember our persecuted brothers and sisters in the 40 or so countries where Christians live in fear of their lives. Since the death of Jesus Christ, 2000 years ago, 43 million Christians have become martyrs: over 50% of these were in the last century alone. More than 200 million Christians face persecution each day, 60% of whom are children. Every day over 300 people are killed for their faith in Jesus Christ. (World Evangelical Encyclopaedia).
3. THE DOXOLOGY
Helmut Thielicke, the great German pastor and preacher, notes in his little book on the Lord’s Prayer that there’s a good reason why the traditional version this prayer begins and ends with praise of God. It is to remind us that we do not simply pray within the pressure of our circumstances, but rather in the light of the power of the God of eternity. It ‘gives us a sense of what is really great and really small:
‘O eternal light, fall
Into this world of time,
That all things small
May small abide,
And all things great
‘The greatest of all is the Father, whom we learn to know in Jesus Christ. And the smallest is my own self, from which I am freed in Jesus Christ. This we are taught by the prayer that spans the world.’
So here we have this wonderfully simple, but comprehensive prayer, of about 60 words, which you can say in twenty seconds.
It is more than a model for praying: it is a model for living.
Pray it often, but don’t switch off your mind: mentally savour every word, every phrase, every petition. Let us teach it to our children. When I go walking with our twelve-month-old little granddaughter Amelia I pray this prayer with her.
At the Baptist World Alliance conference in 1975 I attended a Swedish Baptist Church on the Sunday. A group of Russian pastors was there: their bass voices as we each sang in our own language ‘How Great Thou Art’ were very moving (they had only been give one or two days’ notice of permission to attend). But after the benediction, while everyone was quietly praying, a soloist sang the first praise-strophe of the Lord’s Prayer; then the congregation sang the second family-strophe. Then for the doxology we all stood, some with hands raised high towards the heavens, praising God and affirming his supreme power over all in the universe. It was very moving. (Try it sometime!).