July 25th, 2010 – 9th Sunday after Pentecost

A few weeks ago, our youth group presented a dramatic reading of the Lord’s Prayer which caused many of us to start thinking about prayer in a different way. For those who were not here on that Sunday, the reading started with a person beginning the Lord’s Prayer in the traditional way, but at various points throughout the prayer, God interrupted the words with comments and questions. By the time the prayer was finished, the person who was praying realized what she was really saying, and recognized that the words really did mean something. I know that people who were here on that Sunday started to look at the Lord’s Prayer in a different light, and I would like to move from that now to looking at prayer in general in a different light.
Many people do not realize that there are two distinct versions of the Lord’s Prayer in Scripture. There is the one we heard today, but there is another one in Matthew’s Gospel, and the words are a little different. Here, we can read: 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. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.
The fact that there are two versions of the same prayer sometimes leads to problems for people, as they wonder which one is “authentic”, which one contains the words which Jesus actually used. If we look at one of the differences, we can see that Matthew appears to have added: Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Thinking logically about it, while the disciples were questioning Jesus, they likely asked for clarification while he was speaking. Jesus probably said: Your kingdom come; and a disciple asked: What does it mean to pray “your kingdom come” and how will we know when it has come? Jesus could have answered, “The kingdom comes when God’s will is done here on earth as it already is done in Heaven.” Then Matthew could simply have added the clarification to the prayer.
Of course, this is all guesswork on my part. I wasn’t there, and there was no secretary taking minutes.
But this does open up an interesting question. We accept the Bible as the revealed word of God. But it was not dictated by God. Some denominations, particularly fundamentalist ones, insist that it was. Mormons also make that claim about the Book of Mormon, and Muslims say it about the Qur’an. But we don’t. We say that the Bible is true and inspired by God but that its truth and inspiration do not depend on precise, word-for-word reporting. So our question is this: What is the difference between FACTUAL and TRUE?
If we think about a genre of writing called HISTORICAL FICTION, we will understand. There is a mini-series which has just started called PILLARS OF THE EARTH, about the building of the great cathedrals in England. Some of the characters are based on real characters, but most of them are fictional. The story is true, but not entirely factual. Likewise with Scripture. The stories which Jesus told, the parables, are fiction. Jesus told these stories to make a point. They contain an element of truth, in that the morals of the parables can be applied to all people at all times. But they are not facts. The story of the Good Samaritan was a story. The wedding feast at Cana, when Jesus changed water into wine – this is not a story. Jesus did this.
As far as the Lord’s Prayer is concerned, I believe that it is both factual and true. Jesus DID teach his followers to pray, using a certain formula. Some of the words have been altered over the years, but the basic formula is still there.
Let’s go back to our Gospel reading. The disciples had been watching Jesus pray, and when he finished, they said: Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples. Now, from what we know, most of those first disciples were devout Jews before they became followers of Jesus. Surely, they already knew how to pray. From what I have read, Jews lead a very active prayer life, with various prayers set down for almost any occasion. There are prayers to celebrate birth, prayers to mourn death, and prayers for just about every major life event in between. Then there are prayers for Sabbath, prayers for worship, prayers of thanksgiving, praise, and lamentation. Surely, the disciples already knew how to pray. And yet, they said: Lord teach us to pray.
They could see that Jesus had some kind of special relationship with God, and they knew that, somehow, this was connected with the way he prayed. They longed for that relationship, and therefore, they decided that, if they knew how to pray as Jesus did, they would be granted it.
So we are going to look more closely at the Lord’s Prayer, in the hopes that, at the end of it, not only will you understand what Jesus was saying, but that you will also be prepared to have your lives interrupted by God.
Many times, we just rattle off the Lord’s Prayer without really thinking about what we are saying, and that is not always a bad thing. Rote prayer is a good place to start, especially if the rote prayer is the one Jesus taught us. This is often the first prayer young children memorize, and often the only prayer which we in the Reformed tradition recite regularly. Sure, we sometimes pray extemporaneously, as when we ask God for help with an exam, or with a particular problem. But for rote prayers, this is the one we use. We say it together every week in church, and except for the week our young people made us hear it with new ears, we often don’t think too much about it.
If I were asked to explain prayer, I would use the Lord’s Prayer as my model. There are three reasons to pray – to praise God, to petition God, and to seek forgiveness, and all are contained in this prayer.. The first part of the Lord’s Prayer is a prayer of praise. We say: Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. This word “hallowed” shows the reverence in which we hold God’s name, and our desire that others should also do this. On a more personal, individual level, this means that we should reserve God’s name for special times, and not use it as a part of daily conversation. This does not necessarily mean that the only time we use the name of God is during private or corporate worship. Sometimes, when something particularly wonderful happens, I will say, Thank God!. Is this a prayer; Certainly not a crafted one! However, it is showing gratitude, so at its most elemental level, it would be a prayer. If an individual peppers her/his speech with the Lord’s name, that is not hallowing it. When I do God’s will for me, I am also hallowing his name, even if I do not say it. As a church, we hallow God’s name by using it appropriately in worship or hymns. We hallow God’s name by putting God ahead of things, by putting God ahead of persons, by putting God ahead of buildings. We gather together in God’s name, and this means that every time we assemble – whether for worship or a congregational meeting – we start and end with prayer, asking God’s blessing and thanking God. When we give freely of our time, talents, and money, we are hallowing God’s name.
The next section of the prayer – thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven – acknowledges God’s sovereignty. I have spoken with some people who have problems with the word “kingdom” because of certain negative connotations associated with that word. However, if we can remove our human way of looking at things, does it not make sense for us to refer to God’s kingdom when we praise him? After all, God is the creator and the supreme being, so it stands to reason that he should have a kingdom. And, being God, his kingdom is one which we all want to share. We can share it simply by doing his will here on earth, as it is already being done in heaven. In doing God’s will, we praise him, we acknowledge him as God, as the Supreme Being, who is deserving of all the praise we can give and then more.
Now we come to the petition part of the Lord’s Prayer. When we say: give us this day our daily bread, we acknowledge our dependence on God. The words daily bread refer to all our needs. Notice that I said needs and not wants. Like a loving parent, God will provide for our needs, if we ask him. That does not mean that he will give us everything we want, just as your parents do not give you everything you want. There are good reasons for not getting all the things your heart desires, and God knows them. When people say to me: I prayed for such and such, and God didn’t answer me, I respond: Yes, he did. He said no. God always answers our prayers. We sometimes don’t like the answer we get, but it is an answer nonetheless.
Next we move into seeking God’s forgiveness. Simply because we are human, we are sinners. Now, I am not saying that we are all evil or depraved. But we are not perfect, and therefore we need God’s forgiveness. This is a very important reason to pray – to acknowledge our sinfulness before God, and to ask him to forgive us. Of course, there is a catch. If we want God to forgive us, then we must be willing to forgive others. Depending on the translation used, the word “debts” is rendered “sins” or “trespasses”. I prefer the word “debts” for several reasons. First of all, in ancient times, it was not uncommon for Hebrews to sell themselves into slavery for various reasons, usually indebtedness. But at the end of seven years, debts were to be forgiven and the slave set free. This shows me that God’s forgiveness is absolute, and that I am able to start over with a clean slate. The word “sin” as used in the Lord’s Prayer is a bit confusing for me because I believe that we can only sin against God, not against each other. “Trespasses” could work, but it can sound as though what we did to offend God was almost an accident, and that it really isn’t that serious. “Debts”, now, that is a word with meat, a word which acknowledges our role in the process. A debt is something we enter into with full knowledge, as when we borrow money to buy a car. It is something which we are required to repay. And if we expect God to forgive OUR debts, then we must surely forgive the debts of others.
The concluding phrase of the Lord’s Prayer in our reading for today is: Lead us not into temptation. Matthew rendered this a bit differently when he wrote: And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one. We are all tempted, all the time. Someone once said, Everything I like to do is either immoral, illegal, or fattening. And you know, that is not far from the truth! We like chocolate, we like good wine, we like it when people flatter us. And we are not the only ones who are tempted. We have read in the Gospels about Jesus’ temptations. Henri Nouwen, whom I have been reading this year, said that Jesus was tempted with three compulsions of the world, which tempt us now. First, he was tempted to turn stones into bread. In our modern words, this could be called being “relevant”. Second, he was tempted to throw himself down from a great height, so that angels would bear him us. Today, this could be called being spectacular, or having our fifteen minutes of fame. Finally, Jesus was tempted by being offered many earthly kingdoms. This is power, which many people strive for today. Jesus was able to resist these temptations, and replied “You must worship the Lord your God, and him alone.” This turning to God in the face of temptation is what will keep us on the right path. We cannot do this alone, and we acknowledge this when we ask God to save us when we are tempted.
So this, then is the perfect prayer. It begins with praise, which is where all prayer should start. It moves to petition, which acknowledges our dependence on God. The next step is seeking forgiveness, which God has already granted us. And we ask God’s help when temptation comes along. How much more could a prayer contain? Too often, we only do one part of a prayer. We ask God for things, or we seek forgiveness, or we ask for help, neglecting the other aspects of prayer. If we follow the model of the Lord’s Prayer, our prayers will not be so self-centred. We will praise God, which is what we were created to do. We will acknowledge him as our sovereign king. We will be open to his interruptions, or, better yet, we will not need them, as we will truly know what we are saying. Then, as Jesus said: Your father in heaven will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him. Thanks be to God.


1 Response to “July 25th, 2010 – 9th Sunday after Pentecost”

  1. 1 Ginny Holt August 8, 2011 at 12:04 pm

    Is it possible to get a copy of the Lord’s prayer dramatic reading listed on your July 25, 2010 blog?

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