[This is the fourth of a five-part series, The Disciple's Life, being shared on Wednesday nights with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, during Lent.]
1 Thessalonians 5:17
In Luke’s gospel, we’re told, “One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.’”
This is a strange passage for several reasons, I think.
One strange element is that, as faithful Biblical Jews, you’d think that Jesus’ disciples would need no instruction on prayer.
Another odd element here is the reason the unnamed disciple gives for asking Jesus to give instruction on prayer: because John the Baptist had taught his disciples, his students, how to pray. Did the disciple think that Jesus had been remiss in not teaching them about prayer? Or was he motivated by competitive desire to keep up with John’s disciples?
Or was he simply impressed by the amount of time Jesus spent in prayer?
Or did he have a rising understanding of the fact that a disciple of Jesus should be a person of prayer?
We don’t know the answers to any of these questions, really.
But we do know that Jesus took the question seriously. The disciple invited Jesus to teach them on prayer and Jesus did.
Luke tells us: “He said to them, ‘When you pray, say: ‘Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us. And lead us not into temptation.’” (Luke 11:2-5)
We commonly use variants of these words of Jesus in our public prayer. And that’s a good thing because, as Luther observed, if we genuinely pray the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer, we will have prayed everything we are called to pray as Christians.
But I think that, as Christian disciples, we should also look at the Lord’s Prayer as a model for how a Christian is to pray, whenever we pray.
Often, we view prayer as presenting lists of requests to God. And God does want to hear our requests. That’s why, after teaching the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus goes on to say, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” (Luke 11:9) We should never be afraid of bringing anything to God.
But the prayer Jesus teaches also shows us that God doesn’t want just our prayer lists. The God we know in Jesus Christ wants a relationship with those who confess that Jesus is Lord. Through Jesus, God gives us the privilege of knowing Him as our Father.
God wants to do something else in our praying. Eugene Peterson, the Presbyterian pastor and Old Testament scholar who created The Message translation of the Bible, has written of prayer: “Prayer is the way we work our way out of the comfortable but cramped world of self and into the spacious world of God.”
When we reach up to God in worship, praise, and thanksgiving--when we reach up to our Father in prayer, when we truly pray, God alters our perspectives on life, death, the world, eternity, ourselves, our sin, our sisters and brothers in Christ, and everything else.
In prayer, God seeks to change us. Prayer is a two-way street. In response to God’s accessibility to us purchased by Christ’s death on the cross, we reach out to Him. But, as we move toward God, He moves toward us.
And when that happens, those who are desperate enough, helpless enough, and trusting enough will find themselves changed by God. As Christians “pray continually” (1 Thessalonians 5:17), even when they offer up the same prayer petitions repeatedly, as we do when we pray the Lord’s Prayer, God will change what they mean when they pray them.
The more that we interact with God in authentic, humble, submissive prayer, the more God’s viewpoint and our viewpoint will meld.
God will use the prayer of faithful Christian disciples to stretch us toward heaven so that God’s basic project in our lives--making us more like Christ--will be advanced.
So, be careful how much you pray, how earnestly you pray. God may turn your world upside down.
You may become less concerned about your own desires and more concerned with God’s will.
You may become less afraid of what this life and this world may throw at you and more sure that nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
You may find yourself less impressed by the baubles of this world and more enamored with the riches of God’s gracious kingdom.
You may start letting go of your stranglehold on this world and instead, hold onto Christ with everything in you.
The petitions Jesus urges on us in His prayer are, if we let them do their work on us, bound to blow our cramped little worlds to bits.
Consider the petitions that Jesus teaches us in the Lord's Prayer.
“Hallowed be your name.” So much of our lives is about getting ahead in the world, about having good credit, about having a good reputation. But our greatest concern, Jesus says, should be honoring God’s name. Jesus implores us to ask God to set us free of our worry over “I, me, mine.”
Then Jesus says to pray, “Your kingdom come.” In this petition, we ask that the God we know in Christ would rule over us, that He would call the shots in our lives. Here, we give God the keys to our lives and we become passengers, not drivers.
Jesus teaches us to pray, “Give us each our daily bread.” You have to get to the third petition before Jesus tells us to pray for ourselves. And even then, He doesn’t teach us to pray for security, ease, happiness, or wealth; He says to pray only for what we need to live today. This is a declaration of complete trust in the God. What would our lives be like if we prayed that God would give us only what we need and free us from worrying about everything else? We would worry less, enjoy our blessings more, and be, in Saint Paul’s phrase, “hilarious givers.”*
Jesus then teaches us to pray, “Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.” (Luke 11:4) Prayer without confession of sin is as meaningless as prayer without faith in Christ or an awareness of our utter need of God. Jesus warns us elsewhere, “...every kind of sin and slander can be forgiven, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven.” (Matthew 12:31) To blaspheme the Holy Spirit is to ignore Him when He is convicting us of a sin, to change the subject when, during our times of prayer, God is impressing upon us our need to repent. If we refuse to repent when the Holy Spirit is calling us to repent, we’re calling God a liar and we erect a wall between the grace of God and our lives. We must not take this petition lightly if we are to be Christ’s disciples. If the Holy Spirit convicts us for our sin, we need to repent.
Finally, Jesus teaches us to pray, “Lead us not into temptation.” James 1:13 warns us, “When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone…” So, what is Jesus teaching us to pray in this petition? Martin Luther says that Jesus is telling us to pray that God will “guard and protect us” from temptation, that we won’t be deceived by the temptations of “the devil, the world, and our sinful nature.” And, Luther says, in this petition we also ask God to prevent us from being deceived or led into “false belief, despair, and other great and shameful sins.”
But as they do, they don’t try to change God.
Disciples pray, above all, to ask God to change them. To change us.
That takes courageous faith. May we never be afraid to truly, humbly, openly, expectantly pray.
More next week.
*Most English translations render the phrase in 2 Corinthians 9:7, as "cheerful givers." This is a good translation. But the Greek word translated as cheerful is ἱλαρός (hilaros) from which we get the English word hilarious.
[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. You're invited to worship with us on Sunday mornings at 8:45 am and 11:00 am. We're located at 667 Miamisburg-Centerville Road, Centerville, Ohio 45459.]