There was once a minister who was traveling in the country side, and found himself talking to an illiterate farmer. He asked the farmer if he ever prayed. “Of course I do,” said the farmer. “Every morning I wake up and I say to God, ‘Lord, if this were your land I would farm it for free because I love you. If you had cows I would look after your cows for free every day because I love you.’”
The minister just shook his head, and said, “That is not how you are supposed to pray.” And he took out his prayer book and taught the farmer the prayers that were in the book.
After he left the farmer forgot the prayers, and stopped praying because he did not want to do it wrong. The minister had a dream where God came to him and told him, “My servant the farmer prayed fervently every day. I enjoyed his prayers. And you stopped him from praying because he is afraid to do it wrong. You have stolen something precious from me.”
The minister immediately went to find the farmer, and asked him how his prayers were going. The farmer told him that he had stopped praying, because he had forgotten the prayers in the book. The minister explained to the farmer that his previous prayers were precious to God, and he should just go back to praying what was on his heart. When he left, both the farmer and God were happy, but the minister was upset, because he was wondering if his prayers were pleasing to God.
Last week I talked about the Bible and its role in our faith journey. This week I want to talk about another important element in our journey—prayer. I quoted Jesus last week when he told the Pharisees that they were in error because they knew neither the scriptures, nor the power of God. Last week we looked at the Scriptures—this week we will look at the power of God as experienced in prayer.
Two men go to pray, says Jesus. One was full of himself. “Look at me, God,” he says. “Aren’t I wonderful! You are lucky to have me as one of your followers. Look at all I do! I am not like that guy over there.”
And they guy over there? He is a bad man. A very bad man. He is a tax collector. You think tax collectors are not popular today? They were especially hated back in Jesus’ day, because they had the authority to set whatever tax rates they wanted. They just had to give the Romans a pre-set amount. And many tax collectors got very rich off the backs of some very poor people. He was a bad man, and he knew it.
Instead of justifying himself before God, he just emptied himself. ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ He was not trying to impress God. He was not trying to justify himself. He came with an empty heart, and an empty soul. But it was his prayer that God heard. Perhaps he knew the verse from Joel that we read this morning: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
I want to walk you through what prayer can look like this morning. So to get a handle on that I want to walk us through one of the most famous prayers, a prayer we say every week—the Lord’s Prayer.
Our Father—we start the prayer with a relationship. The prayer is not addressed “To Whom it may Concern.” It is a conversation with a god we have a relationship with. God is our father. God is related to us. This is not about whether or not God is male. What this tells us is that God has a relationship with us—a close and intimate relationship with us.
Who art in heaven….In spite of the relationship, there is distance between us and God. That is why prayer is important. When I worked for the legislature, I had to spend four months every year in Juneau. That meant I was separated from most of the people I really cared about—family and friends. If I wanted to communicate with them, I had to call them. While we have a relationship with God, we are also separated from God. When I was in Juneau I would get caught up in work, and could go hours, and sometimes a whole day without thinking of the people I loved. We can go a whole day and not think of God. This reminds us of our distance from God.
But I can address God over the distance. So while this reminds us that we are in many ways far from God, it also reminds us that at any time we can talk to God. God reaches across eternity to take our hands. We can reach across eternity to take God’s hand.
Hallowed by thy name…Not only are we distant from God, we are very unlike God. God is holy, the very essence of holiness. And we are not. God is different from every other person or thing we know. The theologian Karl Barth said that God was “wholly other,” meaning that God is totally different from us. When we pray, we are talking with someone who has a close and intimate relationship with us, but also with someone who is very different from us.
Now sometimes talking with someone who is different requires a different way of speaking. I love it when people are talking to someone who does not speak their language, and so they just talk slower and louder, thinking somehow that will help. Prayer itself is part of learning the language of God. The more we pray, the more we learn about who God is, and how much God loves us.
Thy Kingdom come…Just like we affirm that God is different from us, so we also affirm that where and how we live is different from how God would have us to live. This world is NOT the kingdom of God. And it is not OUR job to turn it into the Kingdom of God. Instead we pray for God to do the work of the Kingdom in our midst. No earthly politician or political system is God’s representative on earth. There is no Christian economic system. There is no Christian legal system. We pray for it; we do not campaign for it.
Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven …Even though we do not have a heavenly kingdom here on earth, we can still pray for God’s will to be done here on earth. Now here is the rub….we are praying for GOD’S will, not ours, and too often we confuse what we want with what we think God wants. When we pray this we are reminded first, that God’s will is often NOT done here on earth, and second that we need to be active in praying for God’s will to be done. Of course when we pray this we must remember that WE become a part of the will of God. God’s will is done when we ourselves do the will of God.
One of the things I do when I pray is to pray through Psalms. The Psalms are a collection of prayers. By praying them I get a good glimpse into the will of God.
Give us this day our daily bread…In the first part of the prayer we are focusing on God; God’s holiness, God’s kingdom, God’s will. Here we ask for ourselves. Give us our daily bread. Well, actually we are to pray, “give us this day, our daily bread. This day is a very important part of this prayer. If we pray, “Lord, may I never have another problem again in my life,” we are not praying as Jesus taught us to pray. I am reminded of the Children of God when they were in the desert. They were fed with manna each day, but the peculiar thing about the manna was that you could not gather tomorrow’s manna. You could only gather manna for today. Today, God has provided for you. But remember to have faith that God will provide for you tomorrow.
When he was a child, Ben Franklin was helping his father put away a barrel of smoked meat for the winter. As he looked at the barrel of meat before him, he said to his father, “You know, we could save a lot of time if we just said a blessing over this barrel, instead of having to say it at every meal.”
But the point is to remind ourselves that THIS DAY God has provided for us. And it gives us a chance to have faith that God will provide for us tomorrow as well.
And forgive us our debts…I am reminded of the minister who prayed, “Lord, it has been a good day so far. I have been angry with anyone. I have not coveted for anything other than what you have provided for me. I have not forgotten your presence in my life. I have not quarreled with anyone. But I am going to have to get out of bed in the next five minutes, so I will need help for the rest of the day!”
Forgive us our debts…prayer should carry with it a process of self-examination. Have I been the sort of person God is calling me to be? Have I treated people well? Have I loved as well I could love?
We do this for two reasons. First, because if we have sinned against God or neighbor (and sinning against our neighbor is the same as sinning against God!) we need to ask forgiveness. Forgiveness is always offered, and we do not have to carry our sins around with us. We do not have to be weighed down by the things we have done which we regret, nor do have to exert the tremendous amount of energy it takes to hide from our own sins, to pretend they don’t exist, to justify ourselves before God and other people. We can take our sins to God, and we can be forgiven!
But also when we do this, we are becoming better disciples. We find out where we have room to grow. I have been a follower of Jesus for more than 41 years now, and I am still growing, and still learning how I can be a better follower of Jesus.
But there is a catch in this part of the prayer.
As we forgive our debtors…Our ability to receive forgiveness is linked to our ability to forgive others. In same way our ability to forgive others is linked to our ability to receive forgiveness. People who believe that they cannot be forgiven have a hard time forgiving others, and people who are unwilling to forgive others have a hard time receiving it for themselves. In other words, in this part of the prayer we are asking God to make us gracious people, people who forgive and who can be forgiven.
Lead us not into temptation…Ok, this is a strange one. I wonder sometimes what you are thinking as you pray this every week! Does God tempt us? Another way of saying this is to say, “Do not put us to the test.”
When I was in my second church, I was the associate pastor. The senior pastor ran into some problems with the people of the church. It turned out he was not the best fit for that particular church. But some people got really angry with him, and a group of people came to me and said, “We want you to help us overthrow the pastor, and we will make you the new Senior Pastor.” Now I have to admit that was a tempting offer. Wrong. Very Wrong. But tempting.
What really helped me was that in the Presbyterian system the associate pastor cannot become the senior pastor. Now I would like to think that in that situation, I would have done the right thing. I would have said, “No, that is not right. That is not the proper way to become a senior pastor.” I think I would have, but I have to admit it was a lot easier saying, “It just cannot happen.” I was not put to the test.
As we pray this, we are asking God to lead us in ways where we are not tempted. Now as we pray this, we do well to ask ourselves, “Am I leading the kind of life where I am not putting myself in harm’s way? In my relationships, in my dealings with people, am I protecting myself from being tempted to do something I know is wrong. The best way to avoid temptation is to stay away from the things that will tempt you! As we pray this we look at ourselves, and as ourselves that.
But deliver us from evil… The only way we can rid the world of evil is to rid our own hearts of evil. But we cannot do that alone. We need God’s help. We pray this so that as we search our own hearts, we look for things in our lives and in our hearts that make the world a worse place, and we replace with the things of God that make this world a better place.
For thine is the Kingdom and the power and the Glory, Forever and forever.
At the end we give it all back to God. The kingdom that really counts is yours, O God. It is your power that I rely on, the power of the world. And if I have any glory in this life, may I glory who I am before you.
Last week I talked about the Bible, and I wanted to help make it real for you. Now maybe you are fine with your prayer life, but I know that I am always tweaking mine, trying to be better and better at prayer. There is so much I could say, but I will end here. I hope this is helpful for you as you pray.
The Pharisee in the parable told God what kind of person he was. He was full of himself. The Tax collector emptied himself before God. Because he did that, he found that he could be filled with the grace, and the love of God. In order to really pray before God we come with empty hearts, empty thoughts, empty desires. But we also come full of hope, full of grace, and full of love.
9He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Abba Macarius of Egypt said there is no need to waste time with words. It is enough to hold out your hands and say, “Lord, according to your desire and your wisdom, have mercy.” If pressed in the struggle, say, “Lord, save me!” or say, “Lord.” He knows what is best for us, and will have mercy upon us.