[Calvary Mennonite Church – PNMC Prayer Conference – 9/2004]
I have to start with a confession . . . it wasn’t until about six years ago that I first started taking the Lord’s prayer seriously. It’s not that I didn’t like it, it’s just that I didn’t know what most of it meant . . . ! I didn’t know how to pray it!
But there were also larger factors at work, I think, that shaped my low view of this prayer. It’s a sad fact that the Lord’s prayer has been marginalized in the church. It has been marginalized by two competing extremes:
- One extreme is the tendency to ritualize it so that it merely becomes the rote repetition of requests. Sometimes it even takes on a magical quality – a formula – that’s supposed to get results. You don’t know really what it means but you know its important and so you keep mindlessly repeating it week after week.
- The other extreme is the teaching that all prayer should be spontaneous – straight from the heart; most definitely not repeating formulas. In this context the Lord’s prayer doesn’t receive much attention at all – it seems too liturgical. This is the attitude I had picked up in the circles where I ran.
These two competing extremes force us to choose sides, as it were. But either way we choose we are lead away from meaningful use of the prayer of Jesus. And so it remains marginalized in the church.
But, what I discovered six years ago is that, when you actually come to understand what this prayer is about, and begin praying it regularly, it will absolutely transform your practice of prayer. It did mine.
Now we don’t have time to go through this whole prayer. Although, I do have a little booklet that briefly does this on the back table. Feel free to take one. In my time with you this morning I want to share with you more generally six things I have learned from this prayer and from praying this prayer that have transformed my prayer life, that I think will also be beneficial to your prayer lives as well.
1. Jesus intends that we pray this prayer two to three times a day
This conference is entitled, “Prayers of the past shaping prayers for the present.” We need to learn from those who have gone before. But this prayer is different. It is not just supposed to shape our prayers, it is to be our prayer and at the core of our total prayer life. We are to pray it two or three times a day.
Now praying at several set times during the day has strong biblical precedent.
*For instance in Psalm 22:2 we see the twofold pattern of praying in the daytime and in the evening. “O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest.”
*In places like Psalm 55:16-17 and Daniel 6:10 we see a threefold pattern of morning, afternoon and evening. Psalm 55 says, “But I call to God, and the Lord will save me. Evening, morning and at noon I utter my complaint and moan, and he hears my voice.”
*This pattern of set prayer times also shows up in several prayer phrases that we are all familiar with: praying day and night = morning prayers and evening prayers; and also praying without ceasing = you never cease to pray for a thing in your set times of daily prayers.
There is also strong precedent for having set prayers – a specific list of petitions – to use during these times.
*We know from the historical record that these kinds of prayers were being developed in Judaism, even in Jesus’ day. (The 18 Benedictions)
*We learn in Luke 11:1 that John the Baptist gave his disciples a prayer to use in their prayer times – which is why the apostles ask Jesus to give a them a prayer as well.
So Jesus is speaking to this context when he gives the Lord’s prayer. In Luke 11:2 he says, “when you pray, say . . .,” that is, during your set times of prayer in the morning, afternoon and evening – when you pray – offer up these five petitions. This is how you should pray.
The early Christians understood this. The Didache, a very early manual for Christians, recommends that the Lord’s prayer be prayed three times a day (8:3).
So what I am saying is that when Jesus gives us his prayer, he is assuming the Hebrew context of daily prayers and is telling us what to pray for during these times of daily prayer. In other words, Jesus wants us to pray his prayer day and night; he wants us to pray it without ceasing.
But how do we do this without it becoming a dead ritual or just plain boring?
2. We need to pray this prayer of Jesus in our own words, with the help of the Spirit
The fact is, we have two versions of this prayer – one in Matthew 6 and one in Luke 11. And although they are essentially the same, there are verbal differences between them. This tells me that the point is not to repeat the prayer verbatim – word for word or rote repetition.
Yes, it is good to say exactly the prayer in one of its two forms, but it is also good simply to understand what the requests mean and then pray them in our own words. Because when we do this we make the prayer our own.
Jesus did just this as he prayed in Gethsemane:
- He prayed the second petition “your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” when he prayed – “not my will but your will be done.”
- And he prayed the last petition “lead us not into testing, but deliver us from the evil one” in these words, “remove this cup from me.” This is the same petition – in different words.
But not only are we to pray this prayer in our own words – or from our hearts, we are also to listen to the Spirit as we pray this prayer. Jude 20 says, “pray in the Holy Spirit.” Paul tells us in Ephesians 6:18 that we are to pray at all times in the Spirit. So we allow the Spirit to lead us as we make this prayer our own. The Spirit works in us to pray this prayer and bring it to life each time we pray it.
So, the dichotomy we began with: set prayers verses spontaneous prayers – at least in this case – is a false one and we should reject it. You can have a set prayer and also be led by the Spirit, and pray it from your heart.
But you say, “OK, I pray it in my own words and let the Spirit guide me, but how much variety can there be here – to pray this prayer meaningfully – without ceasing?”
3. This prayer is so deep that you will never exhaust it
You will never wear this prayer out. You will never get to the bottom of it. Let me give you one example from the first petition – “Hallowed be your name.” The basic meaning of this petition is for God to be glorified, that God’s name will be seen as holy – or set apart above all other names.
A Variety of Angles. But there is more to it than just this. There are a number of angles to this request that show the depth of meaning in it, and thus shows the variety of ways in which it can be prayed:
– Angle #1: Not only is this a prayer for God’s name to be regarded as holy, this is also a prayer for God to act to make this happen. This petition is a divine passive – a deferential way of speaking of God that uses a passive construction, (hallowed be your name) but has an active meaning (Father, hallow your name). So we are praying for God to act to bring glory to his name – “Hallow your name, Father, by doing great deeds.”
– Angle #2: This is also a prayer for God to make himself known. Someone’s name stands for their character and identity. It has to do with their reputation. So we are praying – “Father, act to increase your reputation in the world. Show your true character. Show who you are through your acts. Make yourself known.”
– Angle #3: This is also a prayer for the church. God’s name is connected to his community. We bear his name. We represent God to the world. When people see God doing great things among us, it reflects back on God’s name in a good way. So, to ask God to act to increase his reputation is also to pray that God will act for us and through us. So we pray – “Act in us, for us and through us, to make yourself known in the world.”
– Angle #4: This is also an evangelistic petition. The biblical background for this petition is the context of idolatry – Ezekiel 36. Who is the real god? We too live in a world where most people don’t know God. So we pray for God to act to make himself known, so that all the peoples of the earth will come to know him, and honor him; that they will hallow his name instead of false gods. We pray, “Father, act so that more and more people will come to know you and worship you.”
So there are a variety of angles or depth of meaning to this petition.
A Variety of Tenses. We can also pray this prayer in different tenses:
Future tense: Pray that God will bring about the final day, when every knee will bow before Jesus and give glory to the Father – Philippians 2:1-11
Present tense, which is what I have been emphasizing: Pray that God will glorify his name now; that he will act to make himself known and cause people to come to know him now.
A Variety of Spheres. We can pray this in different ways in the present tense: You can pray that God will act to make himself known and cause people to come to know him
– through your own life
– through your local church
– through the church worldwide.
A Variety of Language. We can also use alternate scriptural prayers that ask for the same thing in different words:
– Psalm 57:5 – “Be exalted, O God, above the heavens! Let your glory be over all the earth.”
– Habakkuk 2:14 – Pray “for the whole earth (to be) filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.”
– John 12:28 – “Father glorify your name.”
I share all this with you to say that there are so many different ways to pray this pray that it should never be seen as tedious. Now this isn’t to say that this makes prayer easy. It still takes time and discipline and it takes care to hear the Spirit. But once you get to know this prayer’s depth, you will see that boring or ritualistic are not words properly connected to it.
4. God really is concerned about our needs, problems and weaknesses
This is not some lofty prayer. It’s very down to earth. Just think of the last three petitions. They deal with real life as we experience it, day in and day out.
The bread petition: This deals with our struggle for a livelihood and to feed our families; our worries and concerns about our financial needs. We ask for God to care for our needs.
The forgiveness petition: This deals with the fact that we struggle with temptations and sometimes fail as followers of Jesus. And so we need God’s grace in our lives.
The testing petition: This is an interesting one, for even though we are told that we will be tested – Jesus tells us to pray to be spared testing. We learn why we should pray this from the words of Jesus to his disciples in Gethsemane – “the flesh is weak” (Mark 14:38). We say, “God please don’t listen to Satan, who wants to test me so that I will fail – because I might fail and bring dishonor to your name.” We are fully aware of our weakness when we pray this request. God be merciful because we are weak! God wants us to remind him.
God knows our weaknesses and is concerned about them. So he teaches us to pray constantly for his caring provision, his grace to forgive and his mercy to spare us difficult situations that test our faithfulness to him.
5. God’s Agenda Takes Priority in Prayer
What is the most important thing to pray for? We see Jesus’ answer in the structure of the prayer itself:
The first two petitions deal with God’s agenda – his name and his rule.
The last three petitions deal with our needs.
God’s agenda comes first – then our needs. The very structure of this communicates the priority of God’s agenda.
We can also see this prioritization in how Jesus prayed the final petition. In the garden of Gethsemane he prayed, “remove this cup from me” – the last petition. In other words, “Don’t lead me into testing; that is the cross.” But then he prayed the second petition “not what I will, but what you will, Father.” Also, in John’s gospel, as Jesus faces the cross, he prays the first petition, “Father, glorify your name.”
So we see clearly that the first two petitions trump the final one. We pray, “don’t lead us into testing” but then we also pray, “Father, not what I want, not what is easy for me – I want what most glorifies your name – I want what is according to your will.”
This example clearly shows us the priority of the first two petitions. God does truly care for our needs, but we are to focus most of all on his agenda.
6. Finally, Prayer is to be Community Forming
All we have to do is look at the pronouns to see this point. Everything is in the first person plural – “our” or “us.” So even when we pray this as individuals – we are never just praying as an individual. We always have in mind our brothers and sisters in our local congregation, and spread throughout the world. So our prayer is always – at the same time – both personal prayer and intercession.
It is not just, “Father give me this day the bread that I need” It is – “give us this day our daily bread.” “I need bread – and my sisters and brothers need bread, Father.”
I don’t just pray that I will be spared testing and persecution, I pray for believers throughout the world – who are often in much more difficult situations than I am – “Lead us not into testing, but deliver us from the tester.”
So whenever we pray this prayer, it reminds us of our Christian community And as we pray for ourselves and for them, it bonds us closer together. Our hearts are knit together as we constantly pray for one another day by day.