Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Learning to Pray (First Midweek Lenten Devotional Message, 2010)

[This was shared during the midweek Lenten service with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, tonight.]

Luke 11:1-2; Psalm 98
From Luke, chapter 11, verse 1: “[Jesus] was praying in a certain place, and after He had finished, one of His disciples said to Him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught His disciples.’”

This passage comes less than halfway through Luke’s account of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. That means it comes well before Jesus’ disciples knew that Jesus was God as well as a good man. But at this point, it’s probably fair to say that they did understand two things about Jesus:
  • He was magnetic. The disciples felt pulled into Jesus' orbit.
  • And He prayed.
And because prayer is the focus of these midweek Lenten services, it’s on this second thing that the disciples understood about Jesus that I want to speak.

With the help of a concordance the other night, I looked at the times that Luke's gospel says that the words pray, prayed, or praying were used of Jesus. He withdrew to deserted places to pray. Jesus went to a mountain to pray all night alone. At Gethsemane on the night of His arrest, you'll remember, Jesus withdrew from the disciples "about a stone's throw" in order to pray. After He was baptized, Jesus prayed, and then the heavens were opened, the Holy Spirit descended on Him, and a voice from heaven said that Jesus was the beloved Son of God. In an incident we looked at recently during Sunday morning worship, while in the company of three of His disciples, Jesus prayed, a cloud descended to the mountaintop where they were, His appearance was transfigured, and a voice from the cloud told the disciples to listen to Jesus. Jesus prayed a lot!

So, it may seem the most natural thing in the world that one of the disciples--interestingly, never named, meaning it could have been any one of them--would ask Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray.”

I want to caution you against seeing this as a pious request, though. By this point in Jesus' ministry, Peter had made his confession of Jesus as the Messiah and he, James, and John had seen Jesus transfigured on the mountain. But all of the disciples were a long way from understanding Who Jesus was, what it meant to confess Him as Messiah or Lord, or what it meant to pray.

One clue to the ignorance with which the disciple asked to be taught to pray is that after he says, “Lord, teach us to pray,” he adds, “as John taught his disciples.” This is club-thinking, like someone at Kiwanis saying, “Hey, the Rotarians have dinners, shouldn’t we have dinners, too?” Or, like ancient Israel saying, "All the other countries around us have kings. We need a king." So, the disciples' request for instruction on how to pray is a bit suspect.

But, among the many wonderful things about Jesus is that even when the requests we bring to Him are ill-formed, misinformed, or silly, He still listens to us.

Jesus heard the disciple’s request to teach him and the others how to pray, overlooked the ignorance and misinformation behind the request, and gave him—gave us—a model for prayer that can accommodate everyone from the youngest believer to the most seasoned saint.

“When you pray, say, ‘Father, hallowed be Your Name.” Matthew’s Gospel remembers Jesus’ instructions a bit differently: “Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be Your Name…”

Of course, these constitute the opening words of the Lord's Prayer. It's great to say the Lord's Prayer, as we do in our worship together. But more importantly, this prayer provides a great pattern for our praying and for our personal relationships with God.

In The Small Catechism, Martin Luther refers to, “Our Father, Who art in heaven,” as the introduction to the Lord’s Prayer. Here, we’re encouraged to see God not as some distant deity, but as our loving parent who wants to hear from us.

When our son first went away to college and our daughter went to Florida to work at Walt Disney World, every telephone call and every email we got from them were important to us. Our prayers can become the telephone calls or conversations with the Parent Who always has our backs, One with Whom we can share our most intimate thoughts, our deepest desires, our greatest fears, worst sins, most noble hopes, and most urgent requests.

But after this note of intimacy, the prayer Jesus teaches us introduces another element that should be part of our praying as well. He does it in the words, “Hallowed by Your Name (or Thy Name).” The word “hallowed” means revered, sacred, inviolable, respected, glorified.

New Testament scholar N.T. Wright, speaking of how the Lord’s Prayer begins with both intimacy and what we might call God-fearing awe, writes, “This prayer starts by addressing God intimately and lovingly, as ‘Father’—and by bowing before his greatness and majesty. If you can hold those two together, you’re already on the way to understanding what Christianity is about.”

Pulling those two things together—the loving intimacy of God and the overpowering, perfect, majestic holiness of God—will also, I think, help us learn to truly pray.

In Jesus Christ, we know that God is willing to go with us into our deepest valleys and can, if we will let Him, move our biggest mountains.

“God is great, God is good,” a prayer we learned as children says. The Lord’s Prayer, in effect, begins, “God is good, God is great.” Either way you put it, it’s wonderful to know that the perfect, powerful God Who is in charge of the universe also is ready to hear from us anytime.

It seems to me that knowing these two things is the first step in truly learning how to pray.

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