On Our Knees - Matthew 6:9-13
There is an issue that many of us struggle with…when we have to pray aloud in a public setting, whether it is one on one with an individual or whether it is in front of a whole group, many of us grasp at how to pray. There are many formats out there, including the ACTS model of praying that has us begin with “adoration.” “Adoration” would be the way we address and praise God for who God is…such as “Almighty Father,” “Eternal God,” or “Loving Creator.” There are innumerous other address as well, many that we could find on a quick browsing of the psalms. Within the ACTS format of praying our next move is to “confession.” “Confession” is pretty straightforward, it is coming before God and confessing that we are a sinner, confession how we have fallen short of who God would have us be. Then we come before God with “thanksgiving,” revealing to God our gratefulness for all that God has already done for us. Then finally we bring before God our “supplications,” our requests for how we would like to see God act in our lives and the lives of those around us. Too often, we skip over the rest of these and move straight in to the supplications, treating God like a genie in a bottle to grant all of our wishes and desires, as innocent as those wishes and desires may be. The ACTS model shows us that there is more to prayer than simply lifting before God our prayer requests. However, when we take before our God our supplications, our requests, our wants, and what we think we need, do we really believe that God is going to act on those requests? There are two stories that have been shared that really cause us to question whether or not we do.
The first story relates to a church in a small farming community. Every member of that church, in one way or another, was dependent upon the expected harvest each year. One summer a drought threatened to wipe out the crops. On a hot, dry summer Sunday, the pastor informed the congregation that wasn’t anything that would save them except to pray for rain. He said, “Go home, pray, believe, and come back next Sunday ready to thank God for sending the rain.” The people did as they were told and returned the following Sunday. However, as soon as the pastor saw them, he was furious. “But,” the protested, “we prayed and we do believe.” “Believe?” he responded. “Then where are your umbrellas?”
The other story relates to a small congregation located in the city. For years this church had been concerned about a bar across the street. They prayed feverously that God would intervene and do something about that bar. One night, lightning struck the bar, setting it on fire, and it burnt to the ground. The owner of the bar, knowing that this congregation had been desiring and praying for God to do something about the bar, sued the church, saying they were responsible for the fire. The pastor and members of the congregation contested the lawsuit, claiming they had nothing to do with the fire. When the case was brought before a judge, the judge addressed the courtroom before going to his chambers to sort through the evidence. The judge said, “What we have here is a bar owner who believes in the power of prayer, and a church that doesn’t.”
There are two questions that I think we need to ask ourselves at this point in the sermon. The first is, “Do we believe in the power of prayer?” The second question is, “What is prayer supposed to change?”
The answer to the second question may not be as simple as it seems. Our quick answer would be that we understand prayer to be about getting God to change the circumstances about which we are praying. And, it may very well be that we are expecting circumstances to change…but what if, what if what is changed through prayer, is not the world around us, but what is changed is us?
What if prayer is not so much about us changing God, or changing God’s mind, but it is about us realizing that we are not God and we do not know all the answers, and it is about surrendering our complete lives over to God and allowing God to use our lives for His purposes?
Remember, we are in our Lenten Series of learning to walk A Disciple’s Path. Last week I shared with you how James Harnish has suggested that if we live out the membership vows of the United Methodist Church, we will find ourselves walking closer to God, growing in our efforts to take up our crosses, and following Jesus with our lives. The first of those vows relates to prayer, so there must be some way in which prayer is not about changing God, but about changing us. Now don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of places within Scripture where we see God’s people coming before God with their petitions for God to act, for God to change the circumstances they find themselves in, or for God to act in a specific way…and in many of those cases, we see God relent and act. However, if we stop and consider our Scripture reading today…if we stop and consider how, when asked by the disciples, Jesus taught his followers to pray, we will find that prayer, our conversation with God, is truly more about us being changed than it is about us convincing God to change.
Let’s look at this powerful prayer, a prayer that we offer every week, a prayer that truly calls us to examine on a regular basis, whether we are simply saying, or truly praying the words that Christ taught us:
“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.”
How does this prayer change us? We could go in depth, a week’s sermon, on each segment, and many of you will recall that several years ago, we did just that, but today, let’s just take a simple look at each segment.
Simply beginning with the words, “Our Father” calls us to remember two things. First, our role as followers of Christ is not simply a “me and Jesus” thing. It is not simply about me, myself, and I and my relationship with God. To say, “Our” as in “Our Father,” reminds us that being a follower of Christ means living in community…means worshipping, praying, and living with others. We cannot be a follower of Christ alone, we must walk the disciples path alongside others who are on the same journey. I am changed already as this part of our prayer forces me to take my eyes off of myself as the focal point of the prayer, and for that matter, the focal point of the world. I am not the center of the world, the universe, or any aspect of God’s creation.
To call God “Father,” in our prayer means to acknowledge that we have an intimate relationship with God, a familial relationship. We are bound to the Father through Christ, and made children of God. To call God “Father” also acknowledges that He is the parent and we are the children, and contrary to how things work in much of society today, children are called to honor, respect, and obey the parents, acknowledging that they are in charge and know more than we do.
To pray to “Our Father in heaven,” is to remind ourselves that God is greater than this world, is greater than all of creation, and though He is the Creator and is in an intimate relationship with us as Father, God is also above and separate from Creation. We cannot manipulate God as we manipulate and shape the things of this world.
As we pray, “hallowed be your name,” we are praying that God’s name (and remember that in the time of the Scriptures one’s name truly represented who they were) be honored and glorified…we are praying that God may be honor and glorified. This part of the prayer has to stop us cold. It forces me, it forces us, to stop and consider our actions, our words, and our thoughts. Do we seek to glorify God or glorify ourselves? Do we do things so that we may be praised, we may be lifted up or do we do things so that God may truly be given the glory? More so than that, as we examine our lives, do our actions glorify God every day? Can someone look at us and tell that we follow Christ, or do we do such things, mirroring the way of the world, so that folks look at us and say if that is what following Christ is about, I don’t want any part of it? Do we talk in such a way that God is glorified through our speech, or do we live like James accuses some of living, praising God and cursing others with the same tongue? And, as God examines our hearts, do our thoughts glorify Him or do we have ulterior motives for all the things that we do and say that seem to glorify God?
“Your Kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Do we know what we are praying here? In praying this part of the prayer, we are saying that we are not waiting “for some glad day when this life is o’er” and flying away, we are praying for the reality of Revelation 21…the reality of the New Heaven and New Earth becoming the New Jerusalem and descending here on earth…we are praying that heaven and earth may be one. In this part of the prayer we are not praying that we may leave this world, but that we may live in this world as Christ and God’s angels are now living in heaven. We are praying that here and now folks may experience what Christ meant when He told the disciples, “As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’” Jesus tells them to proclaim this good news as they go about curing the sick, raising the dead, cleansing the lepers, and casting out demons. In other words, the coming of the kingdom of heaven accompanies actions which relieve the burdens of those who are struggling…so as we pray for God’s kingdom to come, God’s will to be done, on earth as it is in heaven, we have to ask ourselves, how are we making the reality of the kingdom of heaven seen around us…how are we relieving the burdens of those who are hurting and struggling around the world and in the very blocks surrounding our church?
Next we pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Ah…here we are finally asking God to do something for us, to give us something…ah…well yes and no. We are asking God to provide us with our daily bread, but even this part of the prayer calls for a change in us. It calls us to remember that God provides, that God will give us what we need, just as he gave those who were wandering after being freed from slavery in Egypt, with the daily manna, their daily bread…and they were instructed to only gather what they needed for the day. To pray that God give us our daily bread, is to pray that God give us what we need, and not necessarily everything we want. To offer this part of the prayer calls for us to change from wanting everything, to being content with what we need, and being grateful for what God has given us to sustain us to this day.
The next part of the prayer is the hardest for many of us, for it calls from us one of the greatest challenges in our lives, “And forgive us our debts…” that’s easy enough, we want God to forgive us for thin things we have done, the ways we have fallen short, the many, many ways we have failed to give him the glory he deserves through our actions, thoughts, and words. But then we also pray, “…as we have forgiven our debtors.” This calls for a great change in us, if we truly want to be forgiven by God for our shortcomings, for in this prayer, we are asking God to forgive us in the same way we are willing to forgive others. Walking the path of a disciple means being able to let go of the wrongs done to us and those around us…it means being willing to offer to others the same undeserved grace that we desire from God. If we want to be forgiven by God, it means we can no longer say, “I can’t forgive him for what he did;” it means we can’t say, “she doesn’t deserve forgiveness” or “they haven’t done anything to have earned my forgiveness,” because to pray this prayer asks God to set the same parameters for the forgiveness of our sins.
Finally, as we pray, “And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one,” we are asking God to help us overcome those things which would separate us from Him…we are saying that we want to be able to resist temptation in the same way that Christ resisted the temptations of Satan in the wilderness. To ask God to keep us from temptation and rescue us from evil is also to say, “no more excuses.” It means we can no longer go around sinning saying, “I’m only human.” It means we can’t say, “God made me this way” if we know that living that way is outside the will of God. It means that we are ready to live wholeheartedly for God, allowing His Holy Spirit to enter our lives, sanctifying us, and making us more Christ-like every day…as John Wesley would put it, allowing God to help us grow in perfection.
Praying this prayer from the depths of our hearts, truly meaning what we are praying as we pray it every week, will change us, will call us into a deeper relationship with God, and help us walk more clearly the path of a disciple of Jesus Christ. And so this morning, as we come to share in the feast that Christ has set before us…as we come to prayerful receive His Holy meal, and as we “get on our knees” either literally at the altar or figuratively in our seats, let us ask the question once again, “What if prayer is not about us changing God, but allowing God to change us,” as in our hearts we offer to God the prayer that God has offered to us.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.