Seward United Methodist Church
Friday, September 21, 2018

To Whom Are We Praying?

Luke 11:1-13

 Jesus has been out praying.  

That alone is remarkable.  After all, Jesus is divine, fully God, the second person of the Trinity.  And yet, he is praying, because, of course, he is also fully human.  And to be human is to be dependent on God.  So Jesus, as a human, is praying to God, even as he is God.  That’s strange, but the Trinity always is a mystery.

 Prayer is an essential human activity because it puts us back in proper relationship with God.  God is God.  We are not God.  Prayer reminds us of that.  

 Years ago I learned an acronym for how to pray, which is the word ACTS.  Prayer consists of adoration, that is, praise, confession of our sins, thanksgiving for what God has done, and supplication for our needs.  Each one of those four components of prayer reminds us of our proper relationship to God.  When we pray, we remember that God is far greater than we are.  He forgives all our sins and meets all our needs.  And so we thank him for his provision.  Prayer puts us back into a right relationship with God, as all acts of worship do.  Prayer is an act of worship, an act that ascribes “worth” to God.  

 Of course, when we think about prayer, one of the first thoughts that comes to our minds is “How do we pray?”  We think more about the words we say to God than we think about the God to whom we are praying.  

 Jesus’ disciples weren’t any different.  They said to Jesus, “Teach us how to pray.”  Most rabbis did that.  Some of the prayers that Jewish people used in the first century were universal.  Others were particular to certain groups.  John the Baptist had previously taught prayers to his disciples, so they want Jesus to do the same for them.

 So Jesus taught them what we call the Lord’s Prayer.  One of the things you’ll notice is that Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer is a little bit shorter than Matthew’s version, which is the one we usually use.  There are four extra phrases Matthew’s version.  That tells me that the original version was at least as long as Matthew’s, and possibly longer.  Luke has simply trimmed it down to the essentials.  And the truth is that all of Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels have been trimmed down.  Jesus ministered for three years.  Not everything he said in that time was recorded in the Gospels.  

 The prayer begins, “Father, may your name be honored.”  Or, as we are more familiar with, “Hallowed be your name.”  For God’s name to be holy requires more than

just us saying so.  It requires that we live in such a way as to represent God faithfully as holy, different from the world.  God’s holiness is displayed in our holiness.

 “May your Kingdom come.”  Matthew adds, “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  These are both the same basic idea.  God’s kingdom comes when his will is obeyed in all creation.

 “Give us our daily bread.”  Daily bread is a reminder of the manna God provided daily to Israel in the wilderness, which is the clearest example in Scripture of how God provides for our daily needs.  

 “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”  “Sins” here is literally “debts.”  One of the common ways Jewish people conceived of sin is that it was a debt owed to God.  Forgiveness is God canceling the debt.  If praise reminds us of our proper relationship to God, then confession of sin restores that right relationship.

 “Don’t let us yield to temptation.”  This is a plea for God’s help in the face of temptation.  The translation “lead us not into temptation” is not as good because it suggests that God might lead us to temptations.  

 Matthew’s Gospel includes the line, “Deliver us from evil.”  In this case, evil is not moral evil, as in wickedness.  Evil is more the sense of disaster or calamity.  In the Scriptures, evil refers to misfortune more often than “moral depravity.”  This is a prayer for God’s hand of protection.

 No doubt you’ve prayed that prayer many times.  Is that what Jesus meant for us to do?  Did he give us this prayer as a mantra to be repeated over and over?  I don’t think that was his intention.  I think it was meant more as an example of how to pray in general.  But I also don’t think there is anything wrong with repeating it, as long as we are praying it meaningfully, and not just mindlessly.  And it also functions as a way of unity.  Whatever tradition of Christianity we come from, we probably all know the Lord’s Prayer, sometimes with small variations in it.  

 But Jesus’ most important teaching on prayer was not about how to pray.  His most important teaching is about the character and the nature of the God to whom we are praying.  God is a good, heavenly Father.  Goodness is his character.  Heavenly is his nature.  He is not like other fathers; he is far more powerful and trustworthy.  His example far exceeds the capabilities of any earthly father.  He delights in supplying the needs of his children, as any good father does.

 By the way, there are some people out there in the Church today who think we should drop the language of God as “Father.”  They say, “Well, some people have a bad relationship with their fathers, so we should make God more approachable by eliminating that word.”  I don’t agree with that.  To me, the thinking is backwards.  Because some earthly fathers are not good we should stop talking of God as a heavenly father?  Instead of defining our concept of God by earthly fathers, we should define our concept of fatherhood from God.  Let’s restore a right understanding of fatherhood, not redefine God’s character.  

 Jesus gives us a parable to help us understand this.  The parable begins with a man who receives unexpected guests at midnight.  In ancient Near East culture in general, and in Judaism in particular, this was not unusual.  Jews did not usually stay in “inns” when they traveled.  Mostly they stayed with other Jews.  Hospitality was highly valued in that culture.  And people were expected to offer it no matter what.  Since people often traveled late in the evening, to avoid the heat of day, it would not be strange for guests to come to your home after dark.  

 The rules of hospitality demanded that you give your guests fresh bread, baked that day, which was still in whole loaves.  This man has no such bread, so he goes to a neighbor to get some.  The neighbor doesn’t want to get up and help him.  Homes in the land of Canaan were small, typically only one room downstairs and a guest room upstairs.  The lower level would house the family and all their livestock.  Animals were too valuable to leave out at night, and most people didn’t own any kind of stable.  So he wouldn’t be happy about all the people and animals in the house being woken up.  But he would do it anyway.  The laws of hospitality demanded it.  He wouldn’t want people to think that he or his community were inhospitable.  

 If a person would do that, then how much more would God do?  God is good.  God loves his children.  He delights in meeting their needs.  We are not wringing gifts out of the stingy hands of a reluctant God.  If an earthly father knows how to give good gifts to his children, then how much more does God?  

 In first century Jewish culture, this is what was known as a QAL VAHOMER argument.  QAL VAHOMER is Aramaic for “how much more.”  If a human father does this, then “how much more” would God do?  The ultimate proof of this, according to Jesus, is the gift of the Holy Spirit that God gives to his people.  If God would give us that, not to mention eternal life in Christ, would he withhold any good thing from us?

 We should be persistent in our prayers, Jesus tells us.  But I think it’s important to say why we should be persistent in prayer.  I think there are two reasons:

 First, we should be persistent in prayer for the sake of our relationship with God.  We can’t have a good relationship with God if we don’t talk with him regularly.  

 Second, we should be persistent in prayer so that our prayers can be refined.  Sometimes we start out praying for A, but as we pray, we discern that A is not God’s will.  And we end up praying for B as we better discern God’s will through prayer, which is, of course, a two way street.  Prayer is both speaking to God and listening for God.  If you never stop talking, it’s hard to get an answer from God!  

 In the end, there is no such thing as unanswered prayer.  God always answers prayer.  Sometimes the answer is no.  Or not yet.  Or not what you were expecting.  

 I heard a professor in seminary say something about prayer that has stuck with me for a long time.  She said that God answers prayer in three ways.  

First, he may answer prayer with intervention.  He might step in and change the circumstances in our lives.  That’s what we usually want, of course.  We want him to take away the cancer, save the person’s life, etc.  

The second way is that he may answer prayer with interaction.  He may not change the circumstances.  Instead he may change our perspective on the circumstances.  Instead of curing the cancer, he might change our perspective on life, teach us what we truly need, etc.  

And then there’s the third, and it’s the most difficult.  God may not change the circumstances.  He may not even help us to see the circumstances in a different way.  He might just be with us in the midst of the circumstances.  Silence is also an answer to prayer.  It’s just an answer we like.  

But if we truly believe God is a good, heavenly Father, then we trust the Scripture that says, “God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purposes.”  Even if sometimes the good is not easy to see or understand.  

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