A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Topical Sermon ~ The Lord’s Prayer ~ Matthew 6:5-13, Luke 11:1-4
Everybody knows the Lord’s Prayer, right? Even in this modern, post-Christian, secular, Western, pluralistic culture there aren’t too many places where if I said “Our Father” I wouldn’t hear back “who art in heaven”! And for church people it’s absolutely automatic. In just about every Christian denomination you will find that people have this prayer deeply ingrained in their memories. There may be differences in some of the words but the prayer is one of the few common threads in Christianity.
Did you know there are two versions in scripture? You heard them both read this morning. The version in Matthew is longer and more familiar, and we’ll talk about all that in a few minutes, but first I want to ask you a question.
Why this prayer?
The simplest answer is probably found in the Luke version.
Luke 11:1-2 – Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” He said to them, “When you pray, say…
So, in Luke, Jesus was quietly praying, his disciples waited until he was done, and then they said ‘teach us how’.
It’s about as direct a teaching as Jesus ever gave. So we grab onto it and pray like he told us to.
I find it interesting that we have diligently memorized the prayer but we pretty much ignore the instructions. The preamble Jesus gives in the version in Matthew is also crystal clear. And yet, as I read it to you now, notice how we pretty much do the exact opposite to what he says – especially here in church!
We took his teaching on prayer so seriously that we memorized every word of it – except for the parts that told us HOW to do it. (And we even kinda messed up the WHAT to say part, but I’ll get to that in a minute.)
Here’s Matthew 6:5-8
5 Jesus said, “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.
6 But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
7 “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words.
8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
We’re not so much street corner pray-ers in our tradition, but how many of you really go into a private place for prayer, and shut the door, and pray in secret? Or do you leave most of your praying for this place?
And as for heaping on empty words and phrases because we think we need to cover every possible topic and so that all our words will get heard? – Heck, you pay me to do that!
And from time to time preachers hear complaints that we didn’t include such-and-such in the prayers – like if we didn’t do it God might not know about it!
But Jesus says “don’t be like that”! So is he saying that we shouldn’t be praying together?
Not at all.
He’s saying to avoid a public show and not pile on words because to do so makes the prayer all about your head, and your desires, and your ego. The truth is you could pray just as badly on your own in secret. It’s not the location or the language that really matter – it’s your heart.
Interestingly, the language in the prayer Jesus teaches them is corporate “we” language. I guess he was worried that using “I” language might lead to that ego-based prayer I was just talking about, so he encourages corporate “we” language.
Ironically, I do the exact opposite. Our tradition is SO “we” based that I worry that people may think that personal faith is less important than our corporate faith. If we always say “we” we can pretend that the dude in the next row is really responsible for this or that, and since “we” are collectively doing it “I” don’t really have to. So I swing the pendulum back the other way and encourage “I” language. Again, it’s not the place or the language that’s ultimately important here – it’s the heart.
Ok, so let’s finally dig into Jesus’ prayer. Matthew 6:9 begins:
“Pray then in this way…”
What does “in this way” mean? Using these exact words? For this amount of time? Covering these topics? Even though we’ve all memorized it, it doesn’t mean to pray with these exact words! “In this way” means in keeping with; along this line, in the manner spoken. Not “pray THIS” but “pray LIKE this”.
Our Father in heaven,
It starts with a respectful and reverent address. Our prayers need to start somewhere, why not start with saying hi?
Then comes the 3 “Thy’s” and 3 “Us’s”.
There are 6 petitions or requests in the Lord’s Prayer. I’m using the older “Thy” language because it helps make my point better. If you were to read the prayer in Greek it would jump right out at you because each of the first 3 petitions starts with the word Thy (or your). In English we say hallowed be thy/your name but in Greek it reads “thy name is holy”.
So, we get… Our Father in heaven,
Thy name is holy
Thy kingdom come
Thy will be done
Thy name is holy – hallowed, blessed. It’s an affirmation of a spiritual truth. It’s not telling us that we need to hallow it (although, obviously we should), it’s telling us God’s name is already hallowed, it’s already holy, and we oughta notice!
Thy kingdom come
This is a huge line.
Matthew’s Lord’s Prayer is found in the centre of the Sermon on the Mount section which is all about the kingdom of God, or the kingdom of heaven.
That word kingdom makes some people uncomfortable these days because they negatively associate it with patriarchy and power-over, and oppression. Some like to substitute the word “kin-dom”. That’s ok as far as it goes, but it misses a layer for me.
The Greek word is basileia which means both kingdom and also kingship. That adds a layer of meaning that kin-dom doesn’t. Kin-dom celebrates our equality in God’s kingdom – which is absolutely true! But Jesus’ prayer calls for God’s kingship too – and that has power connotations in it that we can’t avoid.
But even more important than that is the word come. Thy kingdom come.
Come from where? This is really important to sort out. Thy kingdom come from where?
Is God’s kingdom coming from somewhere else?
Is it up there, or out there, far away from us here on earth and we long for the day when it’ll finally arrive from wherever it is and make everything better?
That’s not what the word come means here.
Thy kingdom come means to come into being, to arise, to come forth, to show itself. It means to ‘be established’ as in to be operative for people.
That means that God’s kingdom is already here!
We’re already in it, we just don’t realize it.
We are already surrounded by and immersed in God’s Presence and God’s blessing but we aren’t aware of it as a species.
In other words, Surely God is in this place. Already!
What’s missing? Help me notice!
So instead of thy kingdom come we should probably pray thy kingdom come forth!
And what does that kingdom look like when it comes forth?
Well, it would be a place where thy will is done on earth as it is in heaven.
Our Father in heaven, Thy name is holy, Thy kingdom come forth, Thy will is done
Then we get the 3 “Us’s”.
Matthew 6:11 – Give us this day our daily bread.
Surprisingly, this is a hotly debated verse! First, what does “this day” mean? It can mean both “for today” and also “for the coming day” – so is he saying for now, or for the future, or for both? (I like the idea of both!)
But the real heat comes over what “daily bread” means!
Fascinatingly, the Greek word translated as “daily” (epiousios) is utterly unique to the Lord’s Prayer in all of ancient Greek literature.
In other words, you don’t find that word anywhere else in the New Testament or in any other Greek literature at that time – except for in the Lord’s Prayer.
In other words, either Jesus or the writers of Matthew and Luke made up the word!
Can you imagine a preacher making up words to suit them?! (*grin*)
But isn’t that awesome?!
And because it got translated as “daily” we have completely lost its awesomeness.
Literally, the Greek is epi– meaning ‘super’ and ousios– meaning ‘essential’.
Put it together and the word is super-essential. Not just essential, but super-essential – the most essential – that which is necessary for existence.
So, what is super-essential in Jesus’ estimation?
Obviously, that can mean plain old bread – representing our basic needs for sustenance.
But surely Jesus means more than that – and surely as people of faith we can think of a few times that Jesus used bread in profound theological and spiritual ways! – feeding the thousands, the last supper – and what does he say in John 6:35? “I am the bread of life!”
Do you see what this is saying?
Do you see how profoundly powerful this prayer really is?
Give us this day and every day our super-essential spiritual bread of life!
That’s the first “us”. Here’s the next one, verse 12
And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
Some translations use the word “trespasses”. Luke’s version uses the word “sins”. What are they all trying to say? Forgive us when we fall short, or make a mistake. But there’s a jab in it too, isn’t there?
In literal terms you could read it as forgive (or erase) the debts we owe.
Wouldn’t it be great to have your mortgage wiped out?
But remember, it goes both ways. Are you willing to erase all the debts people might owe you?
More spiritually it probably means forgive us when we fall short, (but again) AS WE ALSO have forgiven those who have fallen short when it comes to us.
In other words, don’t expect forgiveness if you’re not willing to be forgiving. Easier said than done!
And the last “us”, verse 13
And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.
This one has caused a lot of trouble.
Most of us probably learned it as “lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil”. Have you ever really thought about what that’s implying? – That God is the one who leads us right into those things that hurt us? Seriously? Does that sound like a loving God to you?
It’s probably better translated as “the time of trial” – as in those times when your faith is tested.
So maybe it’s a plea that a follower would really rather not have to follow into treacherous places or dark valleys. It’s a very human petition. I worry about people who seem over-eager about diving into times of trial to show how faithful they are. But there’s no avoiding that this verse makes us squirm. I don’t have an easy answer for you.
Deliver us from evil is how we usually say it, but a truer translation is rescue us from the evil one. Again, I’m going to leave it to you to wrestle with what that means for you.
If I was going to take a stab at really understanding this verse, for me, I’d suggest that maybe the evil one is our own negative view of ourselves in the mirror? Maybe it’s asking God to not let us wander down those self-destructive roads we can’t seem to resist and to save us from ourselves?
In worship we always end the Lord’s Prayer with a benediction: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever and ever, Amen.
That was added centuries later by the church. It’s lovely, but it’s not in the Matthew or Luke versions.
So let’s try to sum it all up.
This prayer – this most common prayer of Christianity – this collection of ideas so powerful that the Church has urged its members to commit it to memory above every other passage of scripture – is really quite simple.
The 3 Thy’s and the 3 Us’s can be reduced to really just two things. In other words, the whole Lord’s Prayer can be summed up in just a few words:
Hey God! You Are! We need!
You are. A.R.E.
You are Awesome.
You are Revealed.
You are Everywhere.
We need – need bread, need forgiveness, need saving from ourselves.
So yes, Jesus has taught us exactly how to pray! Everything you ever wanted to know about prayer, right here in this one spot!
Pray to notice the kingdom coming forth – then act like you know you’re in it!
That is indeed Jesus’ prayer!
Hey God! You Are! We Need!