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Teach Us How To Pray

Matthew 6:5-13

There may be no more familiar prayer in the entire world than the Lord's Prayer. It does not seem to matter where you go in the world; if you were to invite people to repeat those words with you the vast majority of people could say them. We may not know many other portions of scripture, and we may not know any other prayer or passage well enough to say from memory, but most of us could work our way through the Lord's Prayer. There might be some division over one part of that prayer, and that would involve whether to say forgive us our trespasses, or forgive us our debts or perhaps forgive us our sins.

The Luke version of the prayer found in Luke 11, which is the version preferred by Roman Catholics, differs from the Matthew version, because it does not include the last three lines about the kingdom, the power and the glory forever. However, with those few differences set aside, most people in this country and in many places around the world could repeat the words of the Lord's Prayer. It is a prayer that many of us learned in our childhood and continue to repeat over and over again for the rest of our lives.

What concerns me this morning is whether or not repeating the prayer is all that we are doing. Has the Lord's Prayer become like the Pledge of Allegiance or the words of the national anthem; words that we speak without really listening to or considering what we are saying? I believe that the words of the Lord's Prayer are among the most revolutionary words ever spoken. When you stop to consider what those words actually say, and if you should decided to live out your life in accordance with what those words actually say, your whole life would begin to move in an entirely different direction.

Consider this prayer in a clause-by-clause analysis. Our father who art in heaven. In this first line we are reminded that no matter what we may face in this world, we have someone to turn to who is big enough, and wise enough and strong enough to help us face and conquer anything. We have a father in heaven that is watching over us and guiding and directing our steps. We have a father in heaven who reminds us that there is a power and a purpose at work in the world beyond our narrow personal and national goals. This prayer automatically causes us to lift up our eyes and lift up our heads and lift up our hearts beyond the problems we face in this world, to a God who urges us to say that "Earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal."

If we have a father in heaven, then the next clause in the prayer directs us on what our relationship to that father ought to be; hallowed be thy name. We need to understand the holiness of God, which includes his majesty, his power, his wisdom, his timelessness and his unchanging nature and character all at the same time. God is holy, meaning that God is unlike us in every way possible. You and I are limited creatures who are tied down by time, space and knowledge. We can only be in one place at a time, and there are a multitude of things about which we can only answer by saying I don't know.

Not so with God, because God's attributes are captured in the words omnipotent (all power), omniscient (all knowing) and omnipresent (present in all places at the same time). And by the way, what sense would prayer make if these three things were not true? Why would we bother to pray to a God who did not have the power to do what we were asking? Why waste time praying to a God who was unable to be with us at that time and place of our greatest need? If God cannot be with us in our hospital room, or by the graveside of a loved one, or when our lives appear to be in danger from some imminent threat, then why pray at all? If God's knowledge is as limited as mine then why would I ask God to help me understand the things that puzzle my mind and vex my spirit?

I love that image of God that is found in Isaiah 6 when the prophet says that he was suddenly standing in the presence of God. The temple in Jerusalem was filled with smoke. The doors of the temple were shaking as the presence of God moved in. God was so big that only the train of his robe (the part of a king's robe that trails behind him on the gown) filled that great temple. Then Isaiah said that he saw angels flying above his head and he heard them crying one to another, "Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord God of hosts, the whole earth is full of his glory." The Lord's Prayer reminds us that the God we serve is holy.

Now comes a part of the prayer that might give some of us some trouble; Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. We say those words, but we really mean them? Do we really want God's kingdom to be established on earth and do we really want God's will to be done on earth? If we say those words with truth and sincerity, then there are some things about the world as it is that we must be ready to see thrown out. When God's kingdom is established on the earth, I do not think we have the Supreme Court of Massachusetts calling for same-sex marriage. I believe that the direction in which our society is moving is fundamentally contrary to a place where people are praying for God's kingdom to come and for God's will to be done.

When God's kingdom is established on earth I do not think we see U.S. corporations that are trying to maximize their profits on the backs of their workers and shut down factories and out source jobs to China and India and Central America. And while families in this country suffer from loss of jobs, people in the countries where the jobs have gone suffer from slave wages and horrific environmental damage. Our economic policy in America is still designed for the rich to get richer while the poor get poorer, and that is not what the kingdom of God is all about.

When God's kingdom comes and when God's will is being done, nations are not constantly involved in wars and the building of bigger and more lethal weapons. It is probably safe to say that the world is awash in guns and bombs and rockets because that is where we place our faith. None of that would be happening if we really wanted to have God's kingdom come and have God's will to be done on the earth. We may be saying the words but I wonder if we are really considering their meaning.

The next part of the prayer cuts in one of two ways, depending upon where you are on the economic scale; give us this day our daily bread. When Jesus spoke this prayer for the first time to a crowd of people who were gathered on a hillside in Galilee, most of them were people who did not have much in the way of economic resources. They were poor people who lived from hand to mouth, working hard for everything they had and still ending up with very little. Many of them literally did not know where their next meal was coming from, so in this clause Jesus was calling upon them to put their trust in God who would provide for them day after day.

There may be somebody here today who knows that these words are true and who know that God will meet our needs day by day even when we do not know where the next meal is coming from. This is a word of hope and encouragement for some people who have been laid off from work, who cannot meet their financial obligations, who cannot see a way out of their poverty; God can and God will feed and provide for his people day by day. There are people, and I would guess that some of them are in this church today, that are only one pay check away from catastrophe. They have no savings, no investments and perhaps even no retirement. This clause is just for you; the God we serve can meet our needs on a day-by-day basis.

Just as God gave manna to the people of Israel as they made their way across the desert in their journey from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the land of Canaan, so too will God take care of us. However, there were some people numbered among the people of Israel who did not trust God or would not be content with daily bread. They wanted longer-term security, so rather than gather enough food for one day they would store food for many days into the future. Not everybody wants to wait on God for daily bread.

There may be many people in this church today who do not need God to give you daily bread. You may be among those for whom money is of no concern. You have established a solid financial plan and you economic security seems to be secure. Remember the words of Jesus that say, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God (Matthew 19:24).

Everything in our society tells us to gather up money for ourselves so that our future can be secure.

However, everything in our faith warns against that very point, largely because we end up putting our faith in money and not in God. In this same Matthew 6, Jesus warns us against too much focus on riches and materialism. He says, do not build your hopes on things that moth and rust can consume or that robbers can break in and steal. Instead of that, says Jesus, Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all of these things shall be added unto you.

Very subtly there is a new message being inserted into the Gospel, and it is the message of prosperity and wealth. There are some people who are coming to our churches because they believe that by doing so they are putting themselves in a position for God to bless them. This is a theology that inverts the role and relationship between God and the world. Instead of coming into the presence of God with our hands lifted up to worship him and to become subordinate to his will, people are now coming into the presence of God with their hands out to receive some material benefit as the payoff for their devotion. Such people may be saying the words of the Lord's Prayer, but I very much doubt that they are listening to what they are saying.

The next clause of the prayer says; forgive our debts as we forgive our debtors. When we really listen to the Lord's Prayer we discover that forgiveness is a two-directional transaction. God is willing to forgive us of our sins, but only when he sees that we are willing to forgive the sins - debts - trespasses that others have done against us. All of us want God to forgive us, and let there be no doubt that God is able and willing to do so. However, that forgiveness is conditional and not automatic; it comes to those who are willing to hold no grudges, harbor no resentments, cling to no hatreds and withhold no love from others because of what they may have done to us in the past.

The character of Jesus was never more on display than when he was nailed to the cross at Calvary. Has there ever been a worse moment in human history? The sinless Son of God was whipped and beaten like a common criminal, and then put to death by the most torturous method then known to man. What would you or I say to God about people who did much less to us? We would file a false arrest lawsuit, seek criminal and civil damages, and ask for restitution for the suffering we endured. Now listen to what Jesus said as soon as the cross had been raised into position; "Father forgive them for they know not what they do."

Forgive the Romans who crucified him, and the Jews who schemed to put him to death, and the disciples who left him to face death by himself? Was Jesus asking God to forgive all of them? Yes! He asked God to forgive all of them! And in this prayer he tells us that if we expect his forgiveness to extend to us then we must be willing to forgive others just as he did that day on the cross.

The next clause is good advice for all of us, because it says that we want God to keep us from any temptation of this world that we are not strong enough to resist. When the prayer says, lead us not into temptation, we must also recall the words of James 1:13-14 that says that God never seeks to tempt any person. In truth, "but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desires he is dragged away and enticed." Therefore, in the Lord's Prayer we are not asking God to refrain from placing temptations in our path. On the contrary, we are asking to help us from falling prey to the temptations of this world that we in our sinful weakness cannot resist by ourselves.

What are the temptations that you find hard to resist? What are the temptations that you find impossible to resist? The playwright, Oscar Wilde once observed, "I can resist anything except temptation." Does that sound like anyone here today? In our society with so many people addicted to so many things, it would seem that many of us are fighting a losing battle against temptation. Millions of people are addicted to illegal drugs like heroin and cocaine. Each of them could well speak these words; lead us not into temptation. Many millions more are confirmed alcoholics who find themselves drinking beer, wine and liquor from morning to night. They too could well turn to God for help and cry out, lead us not into temptation.

There are temptations that we need to confront. Would you be surprised to know that people in America who are looking for entertainment spend more money purchasing various kinds of pornographic material than they spend on professional sports? Between internet sites, adult programs in upscale hotel rooms, the offerings on late-night cable TV, and the endless supply of videos and magazines that can be viewed or purchased in adult bookstores across the country, there are people who cannot resist that temptation. It seems that people spend as much money gambling on sporting events as they do in ticket sales to simply watch a game or race from the stands.

The list could go on and on, as people lose the war against temptation. We spend too much money buying things we do not really need. We spend too much time eating food that we know will increase our weight and endanger our lives. We increase our credit card debt even though we know we cannot pay it off on time and will be stuck with interest rates that will haunt us for years to come. I am sure that I have not exhausted the list of possible areas of temptation, so each one of us can feel free to add to this list anything that is unique to our lives. However, I would venture to say that there is not one of us who does not fight a losing battle against some temptation, and there fore there is not one of us who does not need to say to God; lead us not into temptation.

Now consider this next clause that says, but deliver us from evil. This line is a reminder that God can break the grip that sin and temptation have over our lives. God is able to protect us in the face of whatever may come our way that can put our lives at risk. There are battle we cannot fight by ourselves, and their foes that we cannot face alone. But the God we serve invites us to turn to him in hours when we feel overwhelmed and outmatched, and he will be our strength.

He delivered so many from the evils they faced in past years, and he can still do it today. The God who delivered Israel from slavery in Egypt can still deliver us from oppression today. The God who delivered Daniel from the lions' den in Persia can still lock the jaws of danger in our world today. The God who rolled back the stone and brought Jesus up from the grip of death can still deliver us today from the grip of forces that can threaten and endanger our lives. And even when the dangers we face are ones that we brought upon ourselves through bad decisions and sinful behavior, if we ask him to forgive our sins and restore us into fellowship with him, he is able and willing to do just that. In other words, God can keep us from getting into trouble in the first place if we walk according to his commandments, and he is able to get us out of trouble when we have fallen prey to some danger when we turn to him with faith and trust. We need to thank God for the assurance that God can and will deliver us from evil.

There is a reason why we can have as much faith in God as this prayer demands; it is because of how this prayer ends. For thine is the kingdom, and the power and the glory forever. Nations will rise and fall, sadly, including our own whose moral decline already seems to be well underway. But God's kingdom will last forever. His reign and rule in the hearts of people all over the world will never end.

The power of great military forces or giant industrial or technological corporations will inevitably wane. The ability of men and nations to rule great parts of the world ends as their power slips away. No one fears the power of the pharaohs, the Caesars, the czars of Russia, the kings and emperors of old Europe or the caliphs of the Ottoman Empire. And in a world of suicide bombers throughout the Middle East today, it is apparent that a great many people no longer fear the power of the President of the United States.

Power is a fluid thing, and no matter how much of it we may possess at any one time, our grip on power does not last forever. Meanwhile, the power of God over every element of creation and over the long sweep of human history goes on and on. I love the song that says, "He's got the whole world in his hands." Thine is the power.

The last thing we can say about God is this; thine is the glory forever. There is only one name that is going to be praised and celebrated at the end of time. The celebrities of our world rise and fall, shine and then slip into the shadows of the soon forgotten past more quickly than any of them might like. In just the last few weeks and months, one celebrity after another has been knocked off of their pedestal of popularity by their own acts of misconduct. Michael Jackson, Wynona Ryder, Glenn Campbell and Kobe Bryant have each had their faces and their police mug shots spread across newspapers and TV screens. Each of them was enormously popular within their field of endeavor, but already their glory has faded.

Now consider the glory of God that was shining from before the dawn of creation. Then consider the promise of Isaiah 40:8 that says, "The grass withers and the flower fades, but the word of our God shall stand forever." Consider the glory of God that hovered one night over the hills of Bethlehem and lit up the world when the birth of Jesus was announced. Consider the stirring scene on the Mt. Of Transfiguration when the face of Jesus shown like the noonday sun. Consider the promise and proclamation of Hebrews 13:8 that says, "Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever."

We can pray like Jesus has taught us, because we have this final assurance that Jesus has given us concerning God; thine is the kingdom, and the power and the glory forever. Amen!

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Marvin A. McMickle is Pastor of Antioch Baptist Church in Cleveland, OH.

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