The Lord’s Prayer
Sermon, First Presbyterian Church of Skaneateles, NY May 26, 2019
Our readings this past Easter season have been from the mystical Gospel of John. In John’s gospel Jesus uses mystical language to describe the relationship between Himself, God the Father, and himself and each of the disciples. For example, "I am in you as I am in the father" “That they all may be one as you and I are one.” and this morning, "Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” These are rich passages to reflect on, to meditate on. They lead us to some appreciation of God’s majesty, power and wonder. And they point our minds to Jesus’ nearness as our brother and savior. But there are other moments in our oh-so-human lives when a reading like “I am in you as I am in the father …” makes our eyes glaze over. What on earth can that really me for me today? Our rational brains ask “is this some sort of theological gobbledygook? I don’t need a koan, I need help!”
We like it when Jesus is plain-spoken – farming, fishing and household stories. And Jesus usually is pretty plain-spoken. In fact, Jesus has helped us with these moments of mental overload. Jesus wraps up the fundamental ideas found in John’s gospel simply. It’s all in the brief prayer he taught his disciples when they asked him how they should pray. The Lord’s Prayer. In a sense, much of the Gospel of John is an expansion of the Lord’s Prayer. The Lord's Prayer is more than a special prayer. It is the only prayer Jesus taught his disciples. I've wondered why those five short lines were the sum total of all the words we are told to pray. The Lord’s Prayer seems so different from the prayers we generally send heavenward. And it has depth and meaning we can often overlook because it’s so familiar. We just recite it by rote.
Be honest, aren’t most of our prayers a response to trouble, to illness, to problems or danger? “Lord, save me! God, help me get a passing grade on this exam. Oh Lord, let this test show it’s benign. Oh God, let that state trooper in the rearview mirror be after somebody else, not me.” Many of our prayers are urgent requests for divine help for ourselves or loved ones in the face of threat. Jesus knew we need those prayers but he reminded us that God knows what we need better than we do. There is more to pray for. God the Father is loving us, coaching us, reaching out to help us get rid of our baggage, urging us to grow in faith, to hope for the glorious promises of eternal life. Yet, if all we do is nag him to bail us out?...Hmmm. Being in hot water shouldn’t be the only time we turn to God. It’s a good thing God doesn’t think like we do.
Jesus taught us a prayer that goes beyond nagging. It doesn’t use many words. It is just the opposite of begging the Father for specific goodies and pain relief. In fact, this simple prayer encapsulates the new and wonderful relationship God the Father offers us, the New Covenant.
In our scriptures, Jesus teaches two forms of the Lord’s Prayer. The longer form from Matthew’s Gospel is part of the Sermon on the Mount. This is the form we usually use. The shorter form is in Luke, Chapter 11. This was later in his ministry, and Jesus may have shortened it to focus his disciples on the core of what he was teaching. Luke’s version is startlingly clear — and brief. Listen to the Luke version and imagine hearing it for the first time:
Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread;
and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us;
and lead us not into temptation.
That’s it. There is the substance of Christian faith.
Let’s look at the five big ideas. I’m going to use the version we use each week so we won’t be distracted by any translation variations:
1. Our Father which art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name.
Our Father in heaven, our creator, blessed be your name. You alone are God and the pagan gods we used to worship are worthless. You are no longer the remote fearsome God hovering over us and watching to pass judgment on us for the tiniest infraction of the 613 laws of the Torah. You are our Father. Our Father. This is shocking! Remember, the apostles who asked Jesus how to pray, the first Christians, the disciples, all the Apostles were Jews — as was Jesus himself. In all Jewish prayers but one, God is referred to in majestic remoteness. “Oh Lord, our God,” or in the Hebrew Jesus prayed as a youth, “Boruch atoh Adonai Eloheinu, Melech hoa’olom.” “Blessed are you O Lord our God, King of the Universe.”
The one Hebrew prayer where God was addressed differently, less formally, is called the “Avienu Malkenu”. This prayer is only prayed during the High Holy Days, Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement. Here we address God as Our Father, Avienu, Our King, Malkenu. The “father-child” relationship was reserved for that once-a-year time when the High Priest entered into the Holy of Holies in the Temple bearing our sin offering. Yet, God was still our King. The intimate “father-ness” of God was not yet available to the whole people, but held out in what we now know was a future promise. At the moment of Jesus’ death the curtain hiding the Holy of Holies split open from top to bottom, giving access to the presence of God for the whole people. Now, all humanity is invited to reach out to our father in heaven as Father. Yes, God is majestic, powerful, is beyond our comprehension. But Jesus taught us that our relationship with the Creator of the Universe is also so intimate, so loving, so lasting, that the faithful should comfortably speak with him and be with him as we would a loving parent.
2. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven
In this simple statement we acknowledge God’s will is completed in Heaven. It is, it is done. Not off in some future, it exists … in heaven right now. Here on earth we experience enormous imperfection, the imperfections caused by our sin. But we understand the perfect has already come in the Heavenly plane. Like Michelangelo’s David which has always been there inside the marble needing only removal of the excess, the unwanted stone, to see the completed David. So the kingdom of Heaven exists in all its perfection. The prayer Jesus taught us urges us to enthusiastically endorse and commit to God’s will. We are on your team, Father. Our small lives and goals are nothing except as they serve your will. We will do our part to move this messed-up here-and-now to look more like heaven where Your creation exists in love and harmony. We on earth dedicate ourselves to your goals, your complete and perfected will. You give meaning and purpose to our lives.
3. Give us this day our daily bread
We look to you to supply what we need to get through this day, we are helpless without you. Truly we are helpless on our own. And, Lord, do not give us more than we need. Like the manna, teach us what we need is always supplied, and teach to adjust our desires and appetites to our needs. Jesus, in this prayer, relieves us from the paralysis of worrying about the infinite future. Get us through today. Trust that God knows what it is we need.
4. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors;
Ooooh, the hard one. We are floundering in our human nature just like every other human, but as Christians we are desperately working to be forgiving of everyone, especially those who have harmed us in any way. We know that exactly as we try our best to forgive others, You, Father, will reciprocate and forgive us. Not excusing, not forgetting, but releasing, forgiving. And we acknowledge that if we are not forgiving of others, we do not expect to be forgiven ourselves. And, by the way, if that isn’t enough reason to be forgiving, nothing will convince you.
Now here’s one we often have a hard time understanding...
5. and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from Evil.
Pope Francis was recently quoted making a reflection on this phrase. The Interweb went crazy. “He’s changing the Lord’s Prayer!!” No. Fake News. He was meditating on this puzzling yet everyday phrase … emphasizing that God doesn’t create temptation or send evil. Here’s my version of that reflection: Please, Lord, please do not give us what our human hearts cry out for, what we ask for in our ignorance. We don’t really know what to pray for. Here we are, praying for you to satisfy our human cravings for safety, for satisfaction and preservation of the flesh and the feeding of our pride. We know these human desires are prompted by the opposer, the Devil. Instead of giving us what we think we want, lead us away from the desires of our human hearts. Instead, help us to find and nurture the innermost soul which you implanted within each of us before birth. Lead us to become true brothers and mothers and sisters of our ageless brother, Jesus.
So there. Plain speaking, good for a lifetime of prayer and reflection.
Jesus stopped there, but our human ancestors must have been dissatisfied with Jesus’ plain speaking. Along the way they added loftier, grander postscript phrases. Maybe they were trying to create an emotion of “holiness.” Who knows? It’s exactly the kind of thing Jesus’ warned us not to do. But, we’ll forgive those translators. And, if custom leads us to add those words, I am sure we will in turn be forgiven for adding... “for Thine is the kingdom, and the power and the glory, forever and ever.”
What does this all mean for us —what is Jesus trying to teach us by endorsing this very, very short prayer? For me there are two important takeaways.
1. The first. We humans usually don’t know what to pray for. It makes sense to pray for what God wants done to be done. Wisdom suggests we throw in with God and support God’s program, whatever it is. Jesus and Paul are also very clear about this. Thy will be done. Give us just what we need and no more. The Spirit knows what to pray for.
2. And the second. Maybe we would be well served to decrease our yammering and nagging and listen for God instead. Perhaps if we talk less at God, if we prepare a place and space and sit and listen, we might learn more about God’s will for us than if we do all the talking.
The prophets give strong hints. The prophets prayed in silence, in dreamlike states, in what we would call meditation today. They prayed asleep; they prayed in semi-wakefulness. They received the word of God in dreams while they were aware they were dreaming. They had visions while they were awake. In all these visions, the Lord speaks first – not the prophet. Numbers 12:6: “and the LORD said, "Now hear what I have to say!
When there are prophets among you, I reveal myself to them in visions and speak to them in dreams.
There are prophets among us today. Are you among them?
In John’s gospel this morning Jesus reminds us, “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” God’s spirit is available to us all today. Jesus said so. As a mature Christian, we’ve each been taught that the Spirit is there to guide us. Listen for the voice of God within. Yield to the movement of the Holy Spirit.
We’ve each been praying – or at least saying – the Lord’s Prayer since we were children. It’s easy to find you’re reciting it by rote. I urge you, not just during the service, but when you’re praying yourself, to listen and meditate on the Lord’s Prayer anew. Our teachings are there, our church is there, our God is there.
When Jesus tells us that God is in us as he, Jesus Christ is in us, and we all are one, we believe him, even if we do not yet completely understand what this means. When we pray in a posture of attending to the presence and action of God within us, in our life, in the world, in the cosmos, we may suddenly understand prayer is about more than ourselves. We become awakened to the cosmic “hugeness” of God the Father and his purpose. We begin to understand the smallness, the inadequacy of our prayers. As we begin to sense our presence in the vastness of the eternity of space and time, our soul joins with the souls of that great cloud of witnesses who have come before and those still to come. Our minds begin to comprehend the beauty, majesty and wisdom of these five simple ideas Jesus taught.
You are our Father and we bless your name above all else. Father, your will is complete in Heaven, make it so on earth. Father we depend on and trust you for everything. Father, extend your mercy to us as we extend mercy to others. And our beloved Father, lead our desires to feed our souls so we may become your sons and daughters as you have intended for us before the formation of the world.