In Romans 8, the apostle Paul says: “...the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.” (Romans 8:26)
We do not know what we ought to pray for. As I grow in my faith, I increasingly understand how true this statement is. I often don’t know how I should pray! What is the right thing to pray for?
Some well-meaning people will say, “Pray from the heart.” The Bible teaches us that “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure.” (Jeremiah 17:9) Following our hearts, in prayer as well as in anything else, can lead us away from the One we are to follow, Jesus Christ. Others will say, “Just pray what makes sense.” God’s Word also tells us that “There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death.” (Proverbs 14:12) Following our thoughts can also lead us far from God.
We don’t know how to pray, but Paul’s words assure us that as we come to God the Father in Jesus’ name, the Holy Spirit turns our vague yearnings into prayer. Any Christian who has come to the end of their rope and been able to only pray, “Help, Lord!” knows that Paul’s right!
But the Holy Spirit can help us pray in another way. It’s the Holy Spirit Who inspired the Gospel writers, including Luke the evangelist, to record a pattern for praying from Jesus Himself, a prayer we can pray when we have no idea how to pray!
Our Gospel lesson for today, Luke 11:1-13, says that after observing Jesus praying, one of the hundred or so disciples with Jesus at the time, asked the Lord to teach them how to pray. According to Matthew’s gospel, Jesus had already taught the form of the Lord’s Prayer that we use on Sunday mornings. But this is a different group and a different occasion. What Jesus gives us is a slightly different version of the prayer. Although it’s brief, it contains every element needed in our praying.
Let’s look at the prayer briefly this morning, with particular emphasis on just one word, the key to understanding the whole thing. The prayer starts with the address, Father. Jesus often spoke of God the Father as, “My Father.” And now, in the Lord’s Prayer, He wants to share His Father with us.
This is a remarkable gift of love! You remember that Jesus once confronted a group of His fellow Jews Who refused to accept Him as God. They tried to be “holier than thou” with Jesus by claiming Abraham, the ancient patriarch of God’s people, as their father. But Jesus told them, “You belong to your father, the devil and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” (John 8:44) Jesus is describing us at the moments we are born into this world, born in sin. At birth, God is our creator, but not our Father. We are instead, effectively fatherless, since the devil who lured and lures humanity into sin, death, and destruction, bears no concern or compassion for us.
Jesus came into the world to change that! “[T]he Son of Man,” Jesus says of Himself, “came to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:10) Jesus has died for your sins and for mine already at the cross. He has risen from the dead to open up eternity to you and me. He calls us now to daily bring our sins to the foot of the cross and follow Him to become heirs of God’s grace. (Luke 9:23) Today, Jesus comes to us in the Gospel Word and in the sacraments to bring us the forgiveness of our sins and the assurance that we are God’s children. As we receive these gifts by faith, we know that God truly is our Father.
Jesus, of course, presents us with an unforgettable picture of what God the Father is like in the parable of the prodigal son. The Father in Jesus’ story gives both of his sons, not just the oldest, as was common in those days, an equal share in the inheritance. And though the youngest son squanders all, the Father welcomes the son home with open arms. Jesus wants us to know that, for those who trust in Him as Lord and God, that is God’s attitude toward us and our prayers.
The petitions of the prayer are simple and flow from knowing God as our Father. We ask first, that God’s name’s–whether Father, Jesus, God, or Lord–will be hallowed or regarded as holy, set apart, special. Martin Luther says in The Small Catechism: “God’s name is indeed holy in itself, but we pray in this petition that it may be kept holy also among us.” “God,” we’re saying in this petition, “You’ve given us the privilege of calling You our Father for prayer, praise, and thanksgiving. Help us to use Your holy name for its intended purposes.”
Jesus says, then pray, “your kingdom come.” Jesus, of course, has come into our world to bring the kingdom of God, the reign of God, into this fallen world. Whenever God’s Word is shared and whenever it comes to us in water or bread and wine, the kingdom has come near to us. Here, we pray that this kingdom will continually come to us and that we will never grow indifferent to God’s Word or its call to trust in Jesus.
Jesus tells us to pray, “Give us each day our daily bread.” Even earthly fathers have compassion on their children. Jesus here urges us to recognize that every need we have–physical as well as spiritual–comes from our Father. The Bible reminds us that, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father…” (James 1:17)
Jesus tells us to pray, “Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.” We don’t deserve to be children of God. But because of Jesus’ cross and resurrection and our baptism into Jesus, we are forgiven and made new. Jesus frees us then to pray that we will forgive others as we have already been forgiven–and are daily being forgiven–by God.
Jesus tells us then to pray, “And lead us not into temptation.” Luther points out in The Small Catechism that God, of course, tempts no one into sin. But here, we pray that we would avoid the deceptions of the devil, the world, and our sinful selves, avoiding harm to ourselves or others, avoiding hurting the Father Who sent His Son to save us from sin and death.
Life can throw all sorts of circumstances our way. Grief or the prospect of death may come at any time. Recent years with the pandemic, political turmoil, supply chain issues, severe weather, and others things have shown us how vulnerable we all truly are. It can be hard to know what to pray at times. This simple prayer of Jesus encompasses everything we need and everything we could pray for–reverence for God, citizenship in God’s eternal kingdom, daily and ongoing provision for our needs, the forgiveness of our sins, and protection from temptation. Jesus Christ has made all baptized believers children of God and conferred upon us the right to approach God as our Father and to ask for all these things. So ask. Amen