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A Sermon from
Valley Covenant Church
Eugene, Oregon
by Pastor Steve Bilynskyj

Copyright © 2015 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Matthew 6:7-15
“How to Pray”
January 18, 2015 - Second Sunday after Epiphany

         When a child discovers that parents have names other than Mommy or Daddy, some just take it in stride and learn that other people address their father or mother differently than they have. Others take it as an opportunity to experiment, to look at you and call you by the name you hear from your spouse, from friends, from everyone else in the world.

         The first time it happens can send you into a parental tailspin. You might even respond with a bit of anger and say something like, “No! Don’t you ever address me like that. I’m your father!” But there is a better way to respond and I learned it from my wife.

         I can’t remember how it happened, but when Beth found herself addressed by her first name by one of our daughters, she sat down and talked to her this way: “That’s my name. Everyone calls me Beth and I like that name. But you are my child, you are special and you get to call me something that nobody else, except your sister, can call me. You get to use that special name Mommy and no one else can do that. So I hope you will realize how special you are and keep using the special name for me that only you get to use.”

         Jesus invited you and I to have that unique relationship and use of a special name for God when He gave us the Lord’s Prayer. That familiar phrase, “Our Father,” is a breakthrough in the history of religion. It was not unknown for people to call one of their gods “Father,” but it was not common either. Listen to Jewish prayers even today and they will speak to “Lord our God, King of the universe,” or to the “Master of the world,” or the “Merciful One,” but hardly ever to “Our Father.” That’s a privilege which came to us from the only begotten Son of God, to address God like He does, calling Him Father.

         All that in itself is enough to make our text, the Lord’s Prayer, more than some Christians think it is. I grew up in a church where we were taught the Lord’s Prayer. We memorized it as children. But we weren’t encouraged to say it very much, other than in memory work contests. Saying the Lord’s Prayer was not a regular part of Sunday worship.

         Not using the Lord’s Prayer in worship is sometimes justified by referring to this very text and what Jesus said in verse 7 before teaching this prayer, “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do…” The King James Version translated that as, “use not vain repetitions.” So to repeat anything by rote, even the Lord’s Prayer itself, was regarded as “vain repetition,” violating what Jesus taught us about praying.

         “Real prayer” in our church was spontaneous prayer, anything not thought out beforehand, but simply poured forth out of one’s heart. Such prayers were better than memorized or written prayer, even the Lord’s prayer. I remember sitting in long, long prayer meetings with men and women separated in different rooms, as some old saints prayed ten, fifteen, twenty minute long prayers that were regarded as the height of holiness and communication with God. If anyone had dared to simply offer that little prayer Jesus taught us, I think it would have been seen as a sign of spiritual immaturity.

         I don’t want to be too harsh on those Christian men and women of my youth, because they led me to Jesus and taught me that prayer is vital. But I sometimes wonder if Jesus might not have been talking more about their style of prayer, when He told us not to “heap up empty phrases,” than about repeating simple memorized prayers.

         In any case, when I came to a Covenant church and when I encountered still other forms of Christian worship, I found at least some Christians thought it was a true act of worship to say the Lord’s Prayer together. Some churches say it every Sunday. Here now we say it every week in our first service and at least once a month in this service. It’s a way we take Jesus seriously when He says at the beginning of verse 9, “Pray then in this way.”

         If you turn over to the beginning of Luke 11 you will find Jesus teaching this same prayer to His disciples when they ask Him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” There the introduction even more clearly suggests that we are to say these actual words in prayer. Jesus starts out, “When you pray, say…” Evidently John gave his disciples a prayer, actual words, to pray. Now Jesus does the same for His disciples, for us.

         This, then, is more than just a model for our own prayers, more than just a sketch of what prayer is to look like, more than just a framework on which to hang all our own more spontaneous personal petitions. This, as strange as it might sound to some of our ears, and it used to sound strange to me, this is how to pray, the very words Jesus wants us to pray.

         Don’t get me wrong. Other prayers are good. There are other prayers in Scripture. Jesus prayed other prayers, including a long eloquent one recorded for us near the end of the Gospel of John. Yet we must always come back to the fact that when Jesus wanted to give us a way to pray, wanted to teach us to pray, He taught us this prayer. We might say that this is where Christian prayer begins and ends.

         You can see why the Lord’s Prayer is so important when you stop to really look at it carefully, to think about what it says and how it says it. I’m preaching one sermon out of this series on the Lord’s Prayer, but you could and people do preach for weeks on each of the requests and phrases Jesus taught us to say. Every word is carefully framed to help us ask God for just exactly and only for what we need and for what He wants to give us.

         One thing we see immediately about our Lord’s Prayer is that it is a corporate prayer. Jesus taught us to pray “Our Father,” “Give us this day our daily bread,” “Forgive us our debts as we forgive.” It’s all in the first person plural, a prayer designed for a community of Christians to say together, in unison. Sure, it is fine to pray it by yourself and Christians have done so from the beginning. But all the way through, Jesus taught us to pray remembering that we are not ever praying alone, even when we are by ourselves. When we speak to God in prayer, the whole Church, all God’s people are praying with us.

         After that first address to God as Father, come the petitions, the asking. As I said last week, that is the root of all prayer. We can say other things in prayer and that’s fine. Perhaps you’ve been taught to pray the “ACTS” formula, “adoration, confession, thanksgiving and supplication,” with asking, supplication left until the very end. But asking is the key. It’s obvious confession is only a prelude to asking for forgiveness. And how can you thank God for anything if you haven’t asked Him for anything? Even adoration is the kind of request we see first of all in the Lord’s prayer, “hallowed be thy name.”

         To adore God, to worship Him is still a request, a way to acknowledge our need for Him. We ask God to “hallow” His name, to make His name holy and sacred among us. Adoration of God is like adoration of your spouse. We do it partly in acknowledgement that we want and need that person to be as he or she is, to be beautiful and faithful and loving. When we adore God we are still asking, expressing our need for God to be what we praise Him for, powerful, merciful, good.

         The Lord’s Prayer is one big ask, it’s all petition, requests made to God. You can divide these into two sorts, two kinds of requests. There are three “thy petitions” and three “us petitions.” We put God’s desires and purposes before our own desires and purposes. So the first requests out of our lips are not for what we need or want, whether it’s food or forgiveness, but for what God wants. That’s why this prayer begins, “hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

         Some liturgies introduce the Lord’s Prayer with a little phrase that goes something like, “Now as our Savior Christ has taught us, we are bold to say…” and then you launch into the Lord’s Prayer. I used to think that “boldness” in saying this prayer just applied to the first two words. It was a bold new thing for followers of Jesus to call God Father like He did. But perhaps this whole prayer, especially those “Thy petitions,” is one huge brazen act of boldness.

         Think what we’re saying. That word “hallowed” confuses us because we might imagine we are doing something when we say it, but like the rest of this prayer it’s an imperative, a petition, an urgent ask, “make your name holy.” When we pray that first part of the Lord’s prayer we are daring to direct God, to ask Him to do things we barely comprehend.

         Imagine having the opportunity to talk with some Nobel prize winning medical scientist or with a general commanding troops on a battlefield. Suppose what you say to that person is something like, “Madam, find a cure for cancer,” or “Sir, win this war.” Wouldn’t that be just a tad bold, a bit presumptuous? Sure, you know those are things these people want anyway. But who are you to tell them to do it? That’s how bold it is that we get to pray, “hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done…”

         The second gift of this prayer, after calling God Father, is that Jesus invites us into God’s own plans. He teaches us to pray and ask God to do the great and huge things that God plans to do anyway: to have everyone acknowledge His holy name; to bring His kingdom into this world; to have His will done everywhere and by everyone.

         Of course, if we ask for those things, then they better be something we want and welcome as well. If you tell that brilliant scientist to make a breakthrough in cancer research, then you need to be ready to join the project, even if just by a financial contribution or a vote for her funding. If you tell a general you want him to win his war, then he will expect you to enlist in his army. And if we pray “Thy kingdom come,” then we need to come alongside and join in the work of God’s kingdom right here and now.

         Let me jump over the “us petitions” for a moment and talk about that last phrase of the Lord’s Prayer you and I as Protestants always say, because it connects back to the beginning of the prayer. We say, “thy kingdom come,” and then end with “for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. We recognize that the most important thing for Jesus, and for us, is that kingdom where God’s will really is done. But that last bit, that doxology, that bit of pure praise without any request, is not part of the prayer Jesus taught. If you find it in your Bible, it’s in or with a footnote saying it’s not part of the oldest and best manuscripts.

         Which means that our Catholic friends, who don’t say “for thine is the kingdom…” as an immediate part of the Lord’s Prayer, are a little more biblical at that point than we are. They do say it. I go to weekday morning prayer and mass at a Catholic church in Arizona when I’m on retreat there. The congregation joins hands to say the Lord’s Prayer, but it ends with “deliver us from evil.” Then the priest prays a short little prayer that expands on that, asking God to deliver us from every evil and grant us peace and in mercy keep us free from sin and to bring us into the kingdom. Then after that we raise joined hands together and say “For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours, now and forever.”

         That doxology got added to the Lord’s Prayer very early. It shows up in one of the first Christian writings in the second century. It’s good. “Now and forever” helps us remember that the kingdom for which we pray is not just something we wait for, off in the future. God is at work right now. Jesus said, “the kingdom of God is in your midst.” We’re on the cancer research team right now. We’ve got assignments in the general’s army now. We have a part in bringing our Lord’s kingdom to earth today, not just sometime off in forever.

         The second set of petitions is rather bold as well, but in a different way. Think about it. We’ve just asked God to let His name be holy, to let His kingdom come and take over this whole world, to let the doing of His will fill this planet just like it fills heaven where the angels never fail to do what God wants. Now we have the presumption to focus our attention on our own little homes and tables and ask for enough to eat that day. It’s a bold move from the great, cosmic purposes of God to our own small, humble needs and desires.

         Remember that Jesus taught us this prayer and remember who Jesus is, as we just celebrated at Christmas. Jesus is God come down to us to live as one of us. The Son of God was willing to be hungry, to need daily bread as much as you or I. And so when He teaches us to pray He includes that very human, very humble request.

         Of course, Jesus did not need to ask for forgiveness, but He knew we need it. And Jesus Himself did the second part, forgiving others who sinned against Him. Let me just quickly say that “debts” and “debtors,” as we usually say this prayer in the Covenant Church, is a better translation. Over in Luke the word is “sins” and some churches use that. Many of you are familiar with, “forgive us our trespasses.” That’s a translation of the Lord’s prayer which snuck into English-speaking churches when William Tyndale pulled that word from the end of verse 15 here in Matthew 6 and put it into the Lord’s Prayer itself.

         The word is not critical. “Debts” or “sins” or “trespasses” each speak in different ways of our guilt before God. Jesus told parables which portrayed our sin as a huge “debt.” The Greek word for “sin” implies “missing the mark.” And “trespasses” brings to mind all the ways we tread thoughtlessly on each other’s hearts and lives and bring harm to one another.

         Both the prayer and what Jesus said following it teaches that we cannot be forgiven without also becoming people who forgive. Though it sounds otherwise, Jesus did not make our forgiveness conditional, saying that God will forgive you only if you forgive others. He meant that if you really experience God’s forgiveness you will become a person who forgives. It goes together, as Jesus clearly taught in one of those parables about debt.

         We come then to the real end of the Lord’s Prayer, “and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” I don’t have time to address the debate whether the deliverance should be translated as “from evil” or “from the evil one,” though I have a preference for saying it the first way, the way we usually say it here. Either way it is a prayer asking God to save us from the power and force of evil in this world.

         At this point we are still praying “us.” We are asking not just for our own individual rescue from temptation and evil, but for all of us together. You are not just asking for help for yourself to steer clear of temptation to get angry or eat too much or stray from your marriage vows. You are praying that for everyone else here and they are praying it for you.

         And when we pray for deliverance from evil, we are praying for our brothers and sisters in Christ across the street at the Friends Church and across the world in Egypt and in Nigeria and in China. We are not just asking for own safe drive across town when church is over, but for the safety and security of God’s persecuted people around the world. “Deliver us from evil” is a prayer for your friend who has cancer and a prayer for a family that lost its home to Boko Haram. It’s a prayer that connects us with God’s desire to sweep evil from this world and give everyone who trusts Him peace and health and joy.

         Of course we usually add one last piece to the Lord’s Prayer. We say “Amen.” That’s not there in the original text either. But it’s the way Christians have ended all our prayers for a long, long time. Jesus would say it twice meaning what in the King James is translated, “Verily, verily” or “Truly, truly.” Most often, I think, Christians say “Ay-men” or “Ah-men” (it doesn’t matter), and mean “may this be true,” “may it be so,” “may the Lord listening to this prayer make it true.” If you want to hear Star Trek’s “make it so!” then so be it.

         “Amen” is the final petition of every prayer. It’s an expression of our faith that we are speaking to someone who can do just that, can make it so, make true what we’ve prayed. We say “Amen” because we trust in the power and love of God that Jesus revealed to us, not least in the way He taught us to pray. Jesus said, “pray this way.”


         Valley Covenant Church
         Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
         Copyright © 2015 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Last updated January 18, 2015