Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Last week, we picked up again Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. It’ had been about two months for us since we listened to this teaching of Jesus, but it all flows together in His sermon. Last week, we heard Jesus make a warning of absolute truth, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.” To illustrate this claim, Jesus follows it up with three examples. Last week, we covered the first one- When you give. Today we’ll talk about the second one- When you pray. And then, next week, we’ll hear Jesus’ third example- When you fast. During each of these three activities, beware. Beware that you’re not doing them in order for others to see. To be sure, Jesus tells you to do these things, but make sure your heart is in it too, not just your actions.
So today, Jesus answers three basic questions we have about prayer. How do we pray? What do we pray for? Why do we pray?
So how do we pray? Jesus says, “not like the hypocrites.” Well, that’s all fine and good, but let’s unpack that a bit this morning. We all know how we use the word, “hypocrite” today, but in Jesus’ day, it had a slightly different nuance. “Hypocrite” actually started out in the Greek language as a theater term. The Greek word for actor is “hypocrite.” So when Jesus says “don’t pray like the hypocrites.” He’s telling you not to make a show of your prayers. Don’t just act it out. Don’t just go through the motions. Make sure your heart and mind are in the same place. For Jesus, this is a huge jab at the religious leaders of His day. They loved to stand up at their gatherings and even out on the street to pray, but not so that they would be praying, but so that other people might see them and hear them. It’s more than just ok to pray in public, but if you’re doing it to be seen by others, you might as well just stop.
If you struggle against the sin of pride, then maybe the best option for you is to go home, lock your door, go into your bedroom, lock the door, go into your closet, and shut the door behind you, and there, pray. There, you might actually pray for what you need to pray for. There, your conversation with God is just that- a conversation with God. There, the temptation to pray so that others may see you is completely removed.
How do we pray? “Not like the hypocrites” and “Without heaping up empty phrases.” If the first answer was directed against the Jewish leaders, this one is speaking against the Gentiles. They did not follow the one true God, but various other gods that they were sure controlled every aspect of all creation in general, and their lives in particular. However, these gods were rather finicky. Sometimes they listened to you, sometimes they didn’t. Sometimes they acted, sometimes they didn’t. Their solution then, was to pray in such a way as to wake the gods, maybe get their attention, or simply harass them in order to get their way. The best illustration of this I know is in 1 Kings 18 in the account of Elijah and the prophets of Baal. The prophets of this false god called on his name from morning until will into the evening, crying out, limping around the altar, even cutting themselves in order that Baal might hear them. All the while, Elijah is off to the side mocking them, “Cry out louder- He’s a god, so he’s a long way off- better make sure he can hear you from so far away. Maybe he hasn’t answered yet because he’s deep in thought, or it could be that he’s on the john. Maybe he took a trip and left without telling you, or it could very well be that he’s taking a nap and you just need to wake him up.”
Jesus says “don’t do that.” Talk to your God plainly and simply. Don’t throw in meaningless words or phrases. We Christians fall into that trap especially with the word, “just.” “God, I just pray that you would just heal this person just so that…” I went to highschool with a girl who prayed to God as “Daddy” and there’s nothing wrong with that. But, she would sprinkle his name anywhere and everywhere in the prayer, “Daddy, I pray, Daddy, that you Daddy, would bring about peace Daddy to this person Daddy…” I’m sure we could talk all day about examples of meaningless words and empty phrases in prayer. But Jesus moves on. He’s answered the question “How do we pray?” - not like hypocrites and without heaping up empty phrases- and now he answers the next question.
What do we pray for? Thankfully, Jesus has left us a model prayer that includes everything He thinks is important to include in a prayer. Not every prayer has to have all of these; it’s not a checklist to make sure you’ve filled in completely. But it’s helpful to put us in the right mindset in our prayers.
“Our Father in heaven.” Right off the bat, identify for yourself and others which god you’re praying to. It’s not Allah of Islam, Vishnu of Hinduism, or even the god of Judaism. We pray to our God as Father because His Son, Jesus has saved us and made us God’s very children. It’s a unique and special relationship that no other religion has.
“Hallowed be your name.” God’s name is holy whether we pray for it or not, but with this prayer, we ask that we too would keep God’s name holy- that it be special and sacred for us. We pray that our hearts and minds would gladly, and even instinctually respect, honor, and praise our God.
“Your kingdom come.” God’s kingdom comes whether we pray for it or not, but with this prayer, we ask that His reign and rule over all creation would manifest itself in our lives as well. We pray here that our thoughts, words, and actions would not be our own, but that they would serve God’s purposes for growing His kingdom so that more would come to know and love Him.
“Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” God’s will is always done, whether we pray for it or not, but with this prayer, we ask that God’s will be done in our own lives. Here, we recognize that God’s will is better than our own, and we submit ourselves to His wisdom and His wisdom for our lives.
“Give us this day our daily bread.” Here’s where we ask for what we need. We pray for food, for healing, for protection, and safety, and for whatever else we need. Here’s the hard part- sometimes he says no even to these things. Sometimes he says, no, I’m not going to take your cancer away; no, you’re not going to have another meal today. Sadly, I don’t have an answer for you of why God allows these things to happen. So all the more, we cling to what He has promised us, and what He will give us- His Son, crucified and risen so that we might be forgiven and spend eternity with Him.
“And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Here, we pray for what God has promised- forgiveness. In this petition, we recognize Jesus’ work for us and we ask it be given to us. More than that, we ask that our lives would be so changed by God’s forgiveness that we would go out and forgive all those around us. We’ve been forgiven so much, how in the world could we withhold forgiveness from anyone else, no matter how grave their sin seems in our eyes.
“And lead us not into temptation.” We pray that God would protect us against temptations of all sorts. The less we encounter temptations, the less we fall into them. We pray here that we would be kept from sinning- that our lives would be transformed by Jesus so that we might become more and more like Him every day.
“But deliver us from evil.” Keep us away from Satan and all that would try to take us away from You. This world is full of death and disease, natural disasters, wars, and chaos of all sorts, and God alone can save and protect us from them. And so we ask that he would.
In case there’s still anyone wondering, why do we pray? We pray because Jesus tells us to and expects us to. Like last week and next week, Jesus says, “when” you do these things… He expects and commands us to pray, so that alone should be enough for us. But there’s more. God promises to listen to and answer our prayers. They actually do something. God hears us, and He will act according to His will. Sometimes we ask for the wrong things, or don’t even have the slightest idea of what to ask, but God listens and answers. We pray together in church or as a family or as couples in order for God to draw us together. You’ll notice that the Lord’s prayer uses all plural pronouns when we speak of ourselves. It’s not my prayer for me, it’s our prayer for ourselves. In prayer, we drop our individual, personal, political agendas and we gather together as one, as the body of Christ and pray together, unified. And not only does prayer draw us to each other, but through it, God draws us to Himself. In our time of prayer, we grow more and more dependent on Gor, or rather, we recognize more and more just how much we have always depended on Him. In prayer, we together are drawn ever closer into the arms of our loving God. Amen. Let’s close with prayer.
Heavenly Father, may Your peace, which surpasses all understanding, guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.
Lobe den Herrn
B. A. Woell