So begins a prayer, found in Matthew 6 and Luke 11, that Jesus taught to His disciples. We commonly call His prayer “The Lord’s Prayer” (since it was prayed by Jesus, our Lord). Many churches pray with His words every week- in fact, one of the earliest ‘handbooks’ on Christian practice, called the Didache, recommends that Christians pray these words of Scripture three times every day. Clearly, if the Lord instructs us to pray, His instructions are recorded in the written Word of God, and His disciples think it’s a good idea to repeat those words multiple times every day, there must be some reason why this prayer stands out among others. At Middleton Gospel Chapel, we don’t necessarily pray these words of Jesus together every week, but we usually do several times each month. At my home, we generally pray the Lord’s Prayer as part of our morning prayer time.
That frequency brings us to a problem people sometimes encounter with the Lord’s prayer, and in fact, with any aspect of worship that we do frequently. There’s an old saying- “Familiarity breeds contempt.” In our free church tradition, we often tend to stay away from formality and repetition in our worship for this reason. There’s a sense, often unspoken, sometimes spoken, that “If we do something too often, it just becomes rote, and meaningless.” Jesus says, in Matthew 6:7, “ And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.” This is often said of formal, written prayers (including the prayer of Jesus), or the Lord’s Table (one reason churches observe communion once a month or less, rather than more often.)
It would seem to me that such things as reading the Scriptures, praying Scripture together, and eating the meal given to us by Christ Himself are things that absolutely should never be allowed to become rote or ‘common’, but I’m not sure that infrequency is the best way to guard against that. Instead, the remedy to just going through the motions, and the remedy to thinking we ‘will be heard because of our many words’, is simply to understand and worship in reverence. As a model prayer, the Lord’s Prayer is anything but formal and rote, and instead offers us a guide to pray for ourselves and the world. Each time we pray the words of this Scripture together, we are reminded of Jesus, His work in us, and His work in the world. At the risk of running a bit long, I’m going to break down and look at the Lord’s prayer briefly.
“‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name”- Jesus opens with praise to God. This is a short, loaded sentence. God is described as “Our Father”- a revolutionary way to think about the Creator of the universe. In those days, Judaism stood alone in being a formal religion with only one God. Most believed in many gods- none of whom would be described in such familiar terms. These gods, represented by forces of nature, were capricious and amoral. Do the right rituals, and they might appreciate it and do what you wanted. Jesus introduces us instead to a God who is our heavenly Father- who loves and cares for us, who has a strong sense of morality and justice, and seeks our well-being. In Christ, the Ultimate Power in the world and universe is not capricious. As Graham Hess says in Signs: “Deep down, they feel that whatever’s going to happen, there will be someone there to help them. And that fills them with hope. See what you have to ask yourself is what kind of person are you?” God is loving, and, unlike the amoral gods of paganism, God is holy. “Hallowed” is His name. He is holy, perfect, and just- set apart for good. As we consider Him and His works, we should always be more overwhelmed by His power, justice, and holiness.
“Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”- Sometimes we’ve been given the idea that the heart of the gospel is to accept Christ, and then when we die, we will go to heaven. That’s part of it, but the Bible’s vision is much bigger. In Jesus, God’s king has come, and His Kingdom is coming- on earth, as in heaven. While we live on earth, we live in light of the new Kingdom that God is in process of building. While we live on earth, we long and pray for His Kingdom to come in fullness- for Jesus to return, all injustice be extinguished, sin and death wiped away, and all the world made new. That’s what it means for His kingdom to come, and it’s ultimately what the Christian faith looks for. If we should die before His Kingdom comes, we will be ushered into heaven to await that day with God and all those who’ve gone before us. In the meantime, we live on earth, longing and praying for the day that His Kingdom will come here as it is in heaven.
“Give us today our daily bread.”- Ever notice how many of our prayer requests concern immediate physical needs? Here it is, right in the Lord’s Prayer. Except- it’s not at the front of the prayer- first we reflected on God and His glory, then prayed for His Kingdom in the world, and now we ask for our own physical need. All that we have is provided by God, and we ask Him in this line to protect us, sustain our health and life, and provide for our needs each day, so that we don’t have to live in anxiety about tomorrow.
“And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”- That might be one of the scariest things to pray if we take it seriously. Think about what that implies. In fact, you don’t have to think about it much, because Jesus elaborates only two verses later- “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” As we pray this line, it should certainly make us think about how we relate to one another- we’re essentially asking God to apply the same standard to us that we apply to others.
“And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.’”- There are two ways I often see spiritual warfare and Satan talked about today. One is “Conspiracy Satan”. Conspiracy Satan says behind every sinful habit sits a demonic power. It sees much of what goes wrong on a daily basis as the work of The Enemy, trying to pull us away from God. Personally, I tend to think of this the same way I do most conspiracy theories- generally nonsense. Satan and God are not two equally powerful forces battling for control of the universe. There is a war, but its more like mopping up after evil’s defeat. Yes, the Evil One can still harm, and there will still be casualties, but the end is not in any doubt. Shakespeare tells us to ‘give the devil his due’. The Bible tells us that’s not much. However, in the secular world today, we seem to have dispensed with the idea of a personal ‘evil one’ altogether. Satan is an almost cartoonish figure. This view is comfortable with God, but think of Satan as a non-entity. According to Scripture, that doesn’t take evil seriously enough. Evil is neither the ultimate global conspiracy or a cartoonish non-entity. Instead, the one Scripture calls “the Adversary”, or “the Evil one” is the one whose lies and temptations can subtly influence us day to day. Often, we may fall into his snare and not even notice. But, this line reminds us, the fight is not equal- the One on our side is far greater than our adversary, and He will not lead us to temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.
It’s a long post, but in the Lord’s prayer there’s a lot to chew on. May we always come to the Words Jesus gave to us with longing and reflection, and never let it become rote. And may we do so often (maybe even three times a day?). As much as prayer gives us a chance to talk to God, prayer also shapes us, and having our time and connection with God shaped by Scripture is always a good thing!