Lord teach us to pray
Sermon at St James
Genesis 18:20-32; Colossians 2:6-15; Luke 11:1-13
To listen to the recording of the sermon as you read:
Recently I wanted to make a simple patchwork quilt for a newly arrived grandchild. Had my mother who was an excellent needlewoman still been alive, I would of course have asked her for some advice, but nowadays it’s so easy just to go to You Tube and look for a video tutorial. There seems to be nothing that isn’t explained there, from pruning a rose to breathing correctly for singing. You can even type in ‘learn to pray’ and countless suggestions for different ways to pray will come up, though I can’t say that I would particularly recommend any that I looked at.
Fortunately for us, the disciples didn’t have access to You Tube but they did have access to the person who knew most about prayer: Jesus.
Luke records some of the significant moments in Jesus’ life when he prayed: after his baptism, before he chose his disciples, before the feeding of the five thousand, and of course around the time of his death.
But on this particular day when the disciples turn to Jesus and say’ Lord, teach us to pray’, there was nothing to mark it out from any other day as special.
The disciples had been living with Jesus in close proximity for some time and they could see that prayer was an integral part of his life. They saw him withdraw from them to be with his Father and that it was that which enabled him to be the person he was and do the things he did.
“If that’s what prayer does for Jesus, could it do the same for us?” they wonder. So they go to him:
‘Lord teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.’
It was quite common for a rabbi to give his disciples a particular prayer to use. Here the church has taken Jesus’ words and shaped them into a prayer to be used and memorised.
But I do wonder whether that was ever Jesus’ intention. I wonder whether he wasn’t more concerned that we should discover the nature of the one to whom we pray, and therefore what can happen when we place ourselves in God’s hands in prayer.
So, what is God like? – God is not a remote and distant God who needs to be appeased, but one whom we can call Father. Of course, I know that there are people who have had adverse experiences of fathering for whom this presents huge difficulties. But Jesus wants us to know that God longs to relate to us as a loving parent would.
What is God like? - God is the God of the cosmos. When we pray for the hallowing of God’s name we are drawn beyond this moment in time to all time as we pray for God’s name to be honoured by all God’s creatures throughout God’s Creation.
What is God like? - God is the God of justice, peace and truth and as we pray for the coming of God’s kingdom: we pray for that justice, peace and truth to pervade every corner of the world.
What is God like? - God is the one who provides for the needs of the world. We pray ‘give us this day our daily bread’, remembering that ‘us’ encompasses our brothers and sisters across the world for whom daily bread may not be a given as it is for most of us.
What is God like? - God is a God of mercy and forgiveness. And so we pray for forgiveness, not just at this moment but throughout our daily lives just as we are constantly engaged in acts of forgiveness big and small.
What is God like? – God is a God who protects and guides us. And so we pray to be spared the time of trial or temptation – now, tomorrow, forever.
I believe that when we approach the Lord’s prayer in this way, we will never be able to rattle through it again on autopilot. If we stop and savour each phrase and what it tells us about God, we may even find it hard to get beyond the first ‘Our Father’!
But that’s OK , because the way Jesus wants us to pray is as he did. From his intimate knowledge of the Father when he withdrew to be with him in prayer, Jesus could be confident in God’s love, provision, mercy and protection for him. That confidence becomes ours when we learn to pray as Jesus did.
To underline his teaching, as ever, Jesus told a parable - the parable of the friend at midnight.
In a culture where hospitality is paramount a visitor comes knocking on the door at midnight. The host has no food to offer and so in turn he must knock on his neighbour’s door to borrow bread, waking the whole household as a consequence. Honour is at stake here and eventually the friend is persuaded to rise and help him out.
Prayer isn’t just for times when we’re in church, or when we’ve set aside quiet time, says Jesus. Prayer is for all times of the day and night, convenient and inconvenient. And if your friend can even manage to make a response, however reluctant, how much more is God willing to respond to our shameless requests. God can be roused at any time. There is absolutely nothing that we cannot ask of God.
And how will God respond to us? Jesus emphasises once again the parent- child relationship.
I’ve had the joy this year of witnessing two more of my children become parents themselves and delighted in the joy that these new arrivals have given them, as they seek to do everything they can to respond to their needs.
Jesus says God is like a besotted new parent who is just longing to give good gifts to us, his children. The gift, no less, of the Holy Spirit.
If even you know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!
When the disciples saw Jesus at prayer and longed to emulate him, what they were seeing was the Holy Spirit at work within him. It was the Holy Spirit at his baptism who empowered Jesus to resist temptation in the wilderness; who enabled and guided him in his ministry; and who sustained him in his last hours of suffering and abandonment on the cross.
When we begin to pray as Jesus does, it is the indwelling Spirit of God whom we receive, and who shapes us into people of justice and compassion. For is that not the goal of prayer: to see the world as Christ sees it and to act in the world as Jesus would, to be agents of the coming of God’s kingdom for which we pray?