Wednesday, March 18, 2020

How to Pray (Back to the Basics: Revisiting the Catechism, Part 3)

[Online worship from Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, continues to be posted on YouTube during the coronavirus epidemic. Here's this week's midweek Lenten focus on the basics of Christian faith.]

Matthew 6:9-15

One phrase is likely to bring silence to even to the most verbal group of Christians. It’s this: “Who would like to offer a prayer?”

This is understandable in a way. In the New Testament, Paul says, “We do not know what we ought to pray for…” (Romans 8:26) And Luke says that Jesus’ apostles, the ones He chose to send into the world with His message of new and everlasting life with God for all who repent and believe in Him, felt incompetent in prayer. That’s why they ask Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray.” (Luke 6:1)

Jesus gives them (and us) what we call the Lord’s Prayer, which is the subject of the third part of Martin Luther’s Small Catechism, our topic for today.

But before digging into the Lord’s Prayer, it’s good, as Luther does in The Large Catechism, to consider why we should pray at all. Luther says that there are two reasons. 

The first is that God commands that we pray. That command inheres in the Second Commandment, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.” Why would God tell us not to use His name vainly, that is, uselessly, purposelessly, or selfishly--or as Luther puts it, “superstitiously, or to curse, swear, lie, or deceive,” if He didn’t intend for us to use His name, to “call upon Him in every time of need, and [to] worship Him with prayer, praise, and thanksgiving”?

The second reason we pray is because God makes promises to those who do. The apostle Peter, quoting the Old Testament, told the Jerusalem crowd on the first Pentecost after the risen Jesus’ ascension to heaven, “...everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved…” (Acts 2:21) And Jesus, God Himself, tells us, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.” (Matthew 7:7-8)

So, God commands that we pray and gives promises to those who do pray. 

That’s why we pray. But how should we pray? 

Jesus gives us the Lord’s Prayer as both a good and useful prayer and as a model for our praying. To those who say that reciting this prayer is “vain repetition,” I would point out that Jesus Himself says of this prayer: “This, then, is how you should pray…”

The Lord’s Prayer is composed of: 
  • an introduction, “Our Father, Who art in heaven…,” 
  • seven petitions, and 
  • a conclusion, “For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever and ever. Amen.” 
The conclusion, though not taught by Jesus, is a doxology, that is, a word of glory, that comes from King David’s prayer in 1 Chronicles 29:10-11. (You can look it up.)

The significance of the introduction, “Our Father, Who art in heaven,” is this: By teaching us to pray to God as “our Father,” Jesus is sharing all the benefits and privileges of being God’s Son with those who believe in Him. All who believe in Jesus are “co-heirs with Christ” of His victory over sin and death. 

By telling us to call God “our Father,” God, Luther says, “encourages us to believe that He is truly our Father, and that we are truly His children, so that we may boldly and confidently pray to Him, just as beloved children speak to their dear Father.”

The first three petitions of the prayer--”Hallowed be Thy name,” “Thy kingdom come,” “Thy will be done”--are all things, as Luther explains it, that will happen even without our prayer. But we pray that His name will be hallowed by us; that His kingdom will come to us; and that His will is done in our lives

In these petitions, we refuse to stand in judgment over or pretend to be superior to the rest of the world. We own that we are in as much daily need of God, His will, and His kingdom, brought by the crucified and risen Jesus, as anyone else!

In the fourth petition--"Give us this day our daily bread”--we acknowledge, as Luther says, that “God indeed gives daily bread to all, even unbelievers, without our prayer.” But we pray in this petition to remind ourselves that everything we need for life--our daily bread--comes from God and to receive it “with thanksgiving.” 

Luther’s insistence that God gives us everything we need to live from day to day, is a good reminder in this time when people are (of all things) hoarding toilet paper, that we don’t have a supply problem in our world; God supplies all. We have a share problem. May God teach us to share!

In the fifth petition--”And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who have sinned against us,” we seek God’s forgiveness for our sin and recognize that we cannot be forgiven by God if we are unwilling to forgive those who have hurt...or who we think have Luther says, “We know that we have not earned, nor do we deserve” the forgiveness for which we pray. But, he goes on to say, we ask for it because of the grace that God extends to those who trust in Jesus. At the same time, in this petition, we “heartily forgive, and gladly do good to those who sin against us.” And for us to do that, we really need God’s grace.

In the sixth petition, we ask to be protected from the temptation to sin that comes from “the devil, the world, and our sinful nature,” that we won’t be led “into false belief, despair, and other great and shameful sins.” 

I find I need to pray this petition the most just after I’ve received God’s forgiveness, right after God covers me with His righteousness, as I repent in Jesus' name. 

That’s because once God has forgiven me, I forget that it’s He Who makes me righteous; I start to think what a righteous, wonderful guy I am all by myself.  

When that happens, I don’t see the bear trap of temptation right in front of me. “ the gospel,” Paul writes in Romans 1:17, “the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith [in Christ] from first to last…” In the sixth petition, we ask God to help us to remember that our righteousness is from Christ alone and to protect us from the delusion of our own intrinsic goodness.

In the seventh petition, Jesus teaches us to pray, “But deliver us from evil.” Luther’s full explanation is worth quoting: “We pray in this petition, as in a summary, that our heavenly Father would deliver us from every type of evil--whether it affects our bodies or souls, property or reputation--and at last, when our hour of death comes, would grant us a blessed end to our earthly lives, and graciously take us from this world of sorrow to Himself in heaven.”

I planned this series some weeks ago, long before the coronavirus upended our lives. But I can’t help but feel that God had already planned for me to talk with you about the Lord’s Prayer during this week in Lent. If you’ve never seen your need to regularly pray, including praying the Lord’s Prayer, I hope you see it today

The public health people say to wash our hands for twenty seconds frequently throughout our day. A friend has reminded me that twenty-seconds are about how long it takes to pray the Lord’s Prayer. So, I invite you in the days ahead to pray the Lord’s Prayer as you wash your hands. Every time you pray it with trust and honest helplessness, you will bless yourself and the world for which you pray. And you will be ready for all that may come to you, in this world or the next. Amen 

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